Solid waste stream: Convoluted and costly

A bag full of groceries includes milk in a plastic gallon jug, a Saturday South Whidbey Record, a bottle of chardonnay, and catfood in a can. At home is the leftover sealant from refinishing the deck. The old rusted swing in the backyard is ready for the junk pile.

There are an estimated 78,000 people on Whidbey Island consuming goods and creating garbage every day, yet by law, a landfill is not allowed on the island. As a population that depends on its aquifers for drinking water, landfills are considered too risky. The last landfill, closed and capped in 1992, filled with 330,000 tons of garbage, continues to cost millions of dollars to monitor and maintain.

What’s an island to do?

The waste stream on Whidbey Island is convoluted and costly, with tons of unrecycled garbage eventually flowing from about 9,000 homes to a landfill in the dry eastern regions of Oregon. The trip starts with curbside pickup, transported by truck to a sorting center in Coupeville, where some recyclables are recovered, then to a transfer station, where it’s compacted and transported via semi-truck to the Seattle railyard, shipped to Oregon, ultimately to be buried at a privately-run landfill.

The tipping fee alone costs the county about $85 a ton. In addition, there are the curbside pickup costs and all associated expenses. Since the solid waste program operates on a break-even basis, these costs are passed on directly to the consumer. Recycling manages to keep about 22,000 tons of material out of the landfill each year, including demolition debris and organics such as yard waste.

The county’s recycling efficiency is below the statewide average of 35 percent and well below Island County recycling coordinator Jerry Mingo’s personal goal of 50 percent.

“I want to be as proud of the recyclables end as I am of the hazardous waste disposal and I’m not quite there yet,” Mingo said. “A 30 percent recycling rate is not acceptable to me as coordinator.”

To improve that percentage, Mingo and the county’s curbside garbage hauler, Island Disposal, have a new plan to be introduced this summer.

Which brings us back to that bag of groceries. What happens to the plastic milk jug, newspaper, wine bottle, and aluminum can once the good stuff is removed?

On Whidbey Island, there are four major recycling streams: Island Disposal’s curbside pickup; the county-run recycling dropoff centers; private businesses, such as Island Recycling in Freeland, which also contracts to take all the dropoffs at the county recycling centers; and the Whidbey Naval Air Station, which accounts for 30 percent of all recyclables on the island.

Unlike recycling programs in urban areas, Island Disposal does not provide a separate pickup service for separated recyclables. “Curbside pickup (of recyclables) is very iffy economically,” said Dave Bonvouloir, solid waste manager for the county.

In rural areas, he said, it requires about 85 percent participation for curbside pickup to pay for itself.

Instead, Island Disposal uses a sorting facility in Coupeville, combing through more than 50 tons of garbage each day to pull out what recyclables it can. Island Disposal Manager Don Souza says the sorting station is known as a “dirty merf,” an insiders reference to the Material Recovery Facility or MRF.

“The beauty of Island Disposal’s program is they don’t have to double up on staff and double up on trucks,” Bonvouloir said.

The ugly side is that it’s admittedly ineffective from a recycling standpoint. The efficiency is generally poor, with about 15-18 percent of recyclables recovered. The rest are too contaminated by garbage to be recycled, Souza said.

To improve the numbers, Island County and Island Disposal will be promoting a new “clear bag” system. The idea is simple. General garbage goes into a green bag or other container, while recyclables are disposed of in a clear bag. Both bags are still mixed into the same garbage can and compacted together into the garbage truck, but they will be cleaner and more easily separated at the sorting facility.

“The use of a clear bag facilitates the recovery of recyclables on the sorting line,” Mingo said.

“I really think it’s going to help,” Souza said, adding that his sorters will still go through the green bags to get whatever they can.

Won’t the bags get crushed, breaking glass bottles, and mixing the recyclables with the garbage once again? “Take a look over there,” Souza said. “They don’t usually break open.”

Souza points to a mountain of green-bag trash at the sorting facility. The bags are still whole and round.

Mingo hopes the clear bags will significantly improve the overall rate of recycling on the island, but his expectations are tempered by experience. “If I got an additional 10 percent from this, I’d be elated,” he said.

County residents also have the option of taking their recyclables to local county-owned dropoff points. These facilities, located in Bayview, Camano, and Oak Harbor, accept just about all recyclables, requiring residents to do the sorting themselves.

The dropoff centers produced 6,866 tons of recyclables in 2003, accounting for 31 percent of all recycling on the island.

Island Recycling, a private company based in Freeland, contracts to take the recyclables away. It takes ownership of the recyclables, as does Island Disposal, and they sell the materials to brokers. The brokers, in turn, sell the materials to facilities around the world. China has become a major player, bidding highest for much of the plastics and paper.

Recycling is being done for a bottom line that is as much economical as it is environmental. Every pound recycled is a pound not sent to the landfill, at an overall cost of $85 per ton.

And the costs for the old landfill go on and on. The current mound, covered for 14 years now, requires about $100,000 in monitoring costs each year.

Drive by the landfill at night, along Highway 20 south of Coupeville, and you might see a strange blue glow through the trees. That’s methane burning, the accumulation of gases generated by 330,000 tons of decaying garbage. (According to Bonvouloir, it takes a landfill of about 2 million tons to generate enough methane to make it economical to produce electricity.)

The capped landfill has nine wells drilled into it to siphon off the gases and is surrounded by dozens of test wells in order to determine the extent of seepage through the soils. Thirty years after the landfill first opened, the test wells are picking up hits of gas compounds some 400-500 feet away from the landfill, said Bonvouloir.

About 60-70 percent of the gases are currently being picked up, but the remainder moves vertically and horizontally through the soils, including to the isolated aquifer below. There is an engineering fix to this in the works, but at a cost of about $1 million.

A preferred way of dealing with toxic materials is to keep them out of the normal waste stream to begin with. All the county’s recycling centers accept household hazardous waste, including paints, solvents, yard and garden chemicals, hobby chemicals, batteries, and florescent bulbs. The service is free to individuals and at a break-even rate for businesses.

Florescent bulbs are the number one source of mercury in landfills, Mingo said. The county has a special machine designed specifically to remove the mercury for safe disposal.

The hazardous waste facility includes shelves of household chemicals available for reuse. Gallons of water-based and oil-based finishes, some of which cost $50 a gallon at the store, are available at the Coupeville recycling center for free. That’s also true with deckstains, paints, and just about any common household chemical product there is.

Altogether, about 366,551 pounds of toxic waste was processed at the facility in 2003. That figure includes 24,280 gallons of motor oil, which accounts for more than half of the hazardous waste in terms of pounds.

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