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They're known as the 'Ladies of the dump'
Pulling off the highway just north of Freeland, a wide gate welcomes visitors to Island Recycling, know affectionately on South Whidbey as "the dump."
For several years a couple of tough, playful blondes have been greeting visitors to the privately owned recycling business, giving instructions, sorting and monitoring, operating a cardboard baler and the can crusher and pushing dumpsters around with a forklift. They are Jill Campbell and Susan Williams. With Island Recycling's newest employee, Debbie Kinsey, they are The Ladies of the Dump.
On a recent fall day Campbell, Island Recycling's co-owner, steered me inside to watch Williams operate the baler. Flattened cardboard boxes on a steep conveyor belt rolled into the air, then dropped into a groaning compactor. Williams threaded wires into the back end of the machine that tightened around the bale inside. Then a door on the machine opened, revealing a snugly packed cube of cardboard.
Campbell then started up a forklift and loaded the bale atop several others. It was a tight squeeze with two large pieces of equipment operating in the same small building, but Campbell has had many years of practice.
Island Recycling is a fun place, once both employees and customers know the rules. It's self-service only and a healthy dose of respect -- both for people and the environment. For the uninitiated, the first visit is a learning experience.
"Some of those people drive up and expect you to take care of their garbage for them," she said. "That's not how it works here. This job needs to be done. Any job commands respect."
When asked, "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" Campbell has an answer. She lived in Japan from 1972 to 1990, working as an acupuncture and massage therapist and raising three children. She said it was South Whidbey's atmosphere that drew her first to the island.
"I have three Asian kids, and it's been great for them growing up on South Whidbey," she said. "They've experienced so little bias and prejudice."
As a college student she read the "Environmental Handbook" and learned about conservation issues and sustainable lifestyles. The Japanese lifestyle also taught her to be careful with what she used and what she threw away.
When Campbell moved back to the United States 11 years ago, she met her husband, Dave Campbell, who opened Island Recycling 21 years ago. Campbell didn't hesitate to join the operation.
Now, she and Williams -- two of the three "Ladies of the Dump," share a great rapport. On the day I visited, Williams proudly displayed her newly painted red fingernails, which stood out on a backdrop of grubby blue jeans, T-shirt and work boots. Her co-workers teased her about them, but she seemed quite pleased.
Williams has worked at Island Recycling for five years. After her husband and a daughter died in California several years ago, Williams fell onto hard times. She came to Whidbey for a clean start. Her brothers live here and introduced her to the Campbells, who gave her a job and supported her in making the transition. She appreciates the help.
"I love my bosses," Williams said.
At the recycling center six days a week, Williams drives a forklift, operates a baler, a can machine and a car crusher. Campbell said Williams' raft of talents is unique. It has earned her the nickname "Iron Maiden."
"She's probably the only woman in the state of Washington that is crushing cars right now," she said.
Kinsey, the newest member of the crew, runs the businesses' indoor "thrift shop." She worked at Island Recycling last spring and then went back to her summer job at South Whidbey State Park. She returned to the recycling center this fall when Campbell called her to say Williams "picked" her as the person she wanted working at Island Recycling. Now she's part of the playful comraderie among the women.
Kinsey has no image problems with her new career. She once worked as a substitute teacher and was always on call. Then she worked as a painter with an all-male crew.
"This is way more fun," Kinsey said.
At this job, she gets paid well, about $15 per hour, and has flexible hours so she can take care of her children when they need her.
"I'm working for a mom, so we support each other," she said. "The support of women is priceless."
Kinsey's commitment to recycling goes home with her every night after work. Her children help with the recycling at home by rinsing cans and removing labels. They even stopped drinking pop to cut down on the amount of aluminum cans they use. Water, juice and milk are the only options now.
"I consider myself a conservationist," she said. "I call us 'Earth Mammas.' "
Jill Campbell does Island Recycling's books, so she knows where profits are made and lost in the recycling market. Aluminum generally pays the best, allowing Island Recycling to pay customers 20 cents a pound for their aluminum cans. The Boy Scouts and the Knights of Columbus collect cans to raise funds, as do Bruce and Cathy Callahan. Both South Whidbey Intermediate School teachers, the couple collects cans and uses the money Island Recycling pays to support needy children.
To get paid for recyclables that sell well and to get recycling processors to accept materials that have little or no market value, the women at Island Recycling have to put the recyclables into a saleable package. They separate steel and aluminum cans with a magnet, then load them into a machine that flattens them. Then it is time to load them up and truck them to a buyer in Bellevue or Redmond, whoever is paying more.
Foil, copper and brass go to another company for sale. Plastics go to a company in Salem, Ore. that buys more varieties of plastics than almost anyone else. But the material is so lightweight, it can take an entire year to collect one truckload of plastics.
When the Campbells do haul the load away, they turn the trip into a family outing, complete with a stop at a favorite Indian restaurant.
They have to do the work themselves.
"We couldn't afford to pay anyone else to haul it," Campbell said.
In fact, it costs the Campbells money to collect plastics. But it was something they felt they needed to do.
"It was time," she said.
Making the recycling business even more dicey is the fact that the price of scrap steel has been poor for more than two years. There have been times, Campbell said, when some recycling companies have taken recyclables without a market to the landfill. Sometimes, the market will put recyclers out of business.
"We never know when we might get a truckload ready and call the dealer only to find that they've gone out of business," Campbell said.
When she's not checking recycling commodity prices, Campbell has other jobs to do. When she, her employees, or Dave Campbell aren't spreading the recycling word at the dump, they are often out in a truck picking up cars and appliances that have been illegally dumped. Island County pays them for the service.
Campbell said people leave these large items for someone else to pick up because they don't want to pay to dispose of them. She said she can't fathom that thought process.
"Anyone who pays $300 for a washing machine can pay $10 to bring it to the recycling center."
Then there is the other end of the scale -- the people who will do almost anything to justify a visit to Island Recycling. Campbell said she has regulars who are artists looking for quirky stuff, welders stopping by to check out the scrap metal and builders looking for unusual materials.
"We have people who come here every day. Some come twice a day. It's like a hangout."
There is usually enough well-worn stuff, such as couches and tables, desks, file cabinets, chairs, wood stoves and windows, to put together a small household. Williams said she did just that.
"I got a jacuzzi for $100," she said. "Every car I've had has come from the dump."
However, not as much of the "good stuff" is making it to Island Recycling. Campbell said people are buying more new stuff. Costco and Wal-Mart sell things so cheaply, she said, that a new product is only slightly more expensive than used. More of the treasures are getting dumped into landfills. And more of the trash -- always more -- is getting dumped at Island Recycling.
(Editor's note: Maribeth Crowe is as an education outreach specialist for Island County's Solid Waste Department. This week she started teaching Whidbey Island school children about recycling.)