Where does the garbage go?

A look at solid waste disposal in the North End

Ah, summer: a time for barbeques, afternoons on the beach, and trips to the dump. The dump? Yes, the dump. After a long winter and a very cold, wet spring, what better way to kick off the summer season than with a good space clearing?

Go ahead: banish the old tools, half-used paint, and sports equipment from the garage. Move the broken furniture, piles of old magazines and boxes of outgrown clothing out of the spare room. Spruce the place up. Rediscover your floor again. But before you throw any of those items into a dumpster, ask yourself: what really happens to the things we throw away? Where do they go?

Ignorance is not bliss

In a recent (and very informal) survey done for this article, a number of North Kitsap residents acknowledged throwing away recyclable or reusable materials, such as clothing, plastic bottles and furniture, even though the items could have been disposed of in other ways. Why? For some, the issue was one of time: they didn’t know where else to dispose of the items, and didn’t feel they had the time to research the issue. For others, they believed that “down the line,” the contents of the dumpsters would be sorted, and valuable items retrieved, either for re-use or recycling.

This is an erroneous assumption, according to Dean Boening, Transfer Systems Manager for Kitsap County’s Solid Waste Division.

“When it hits the dumpster, it’s trash,” he said. “Even our employees aren’t allowed to retrieve items once they’ve been thrown away.”

What do people throw away? Antiques. Shrubs in pots. Barely worn clothing. Sofas stuffed with garbage and – now and then – (an illegal) propane tank hidden beneath the cushions. Lisa Monroe, facilities supervisor for the Hansville and Poulsbo sites, has even seen people throw away the recycling that their spouse or neighbor has carefully sorted and prepared for the recycling bins.

“They don’t want to take the time to sort it out,” she said.

So into the dumpster it goes. Then what happens?

A trash exodus begins

On average, North Kitsap residents fill three to four 50-cubic-yard dumpsters with garbage every day. Once full, the dumpsters are hauled, in pairs, to the Olympic View Transfer Station (OVTS) on Barney White road in South Kitsap, where all the solid waste generated in Kitsap County is processed. At OVTS, the dumpsters are emptied onto a large floor, where various materials are mixed together by earth-moving equipment. Eventually, the mixed garbage is pushed through a hole in the floor into a large trash compactor below. There, inside a shipping container, it is compressed into a 30-ton bale.

Once the compaction process is complete, the containers are deposited on railcars. Every other day, they are hauled to Centralia and combined with City of Seattle containers before continuing on to the Columbia Ridge landfill in Arlington, Ore. At the landfill, the bales are unloaded, and the trains return empty to start the process again.

Returning to the source

Garbage is a fact of life in modern society, at least for now. But we can do better. (See the sidebar above for other options besides throwing your unwanted goods away.) Even if you recycle what you can, and still have a sizeable amount of refuse to dump, remember to cover your load. And please, take your trash to the transfer station. It doesn’t belong in the woods, or along the side of the road. The cost in Kitsap to dispose of garbage is low, relative to other counties in the Puget Sound region, and annual “amnesty” days provide opportunities to dispose of particular items (furniture and yard waste) at no cost.

Once you get to the transfer station, don’t be shy about asking the staff questions: they have extensive training, knowledge, and a wide variety of literature available on everything from adopt-a-road to disposing of household hazardous waste safely.

Ah, summer: Hansville Rummage Sale, anyone?

A (very) brief history of garbage

Prior to the mid-1800s, the relative lack of ready-made goods supported a frugal mindset and maximum re-use of consumer goods; garbage was largely comprised of animal and human waste, food scraps, and simple household items too damaged to be rehabilitated. During the 19th century, municipal waste was composted, and refuse was sorted and re-used. But industrialization changed this pattern, and today, mass marketing and production across the globe has vastly increased the consumption of disposable goods, without a comparable increase in recycling policies or programs.

As a result, modern people are literally swimming in garbage, much of it made from highly toxic, petroleum-based plastics that are extremely slow to break down. Where does it all end up? Today, in the United States much of the garbage ends up buried in landfills and burned in incinerators. For more information about the history of garbage, check out “Gone Tomorrow, The Hidden Life of Garbage” by Heather Rogers, and “Waste and Want, A Social History of Trash” by Susan Strasser, both available at Kitsap Regional Library.