Vashon’s trash catches a ride off the Island

Garyn Potter, Vashon’s only garbage man, has driven a garbage truck on Vashon for seven years. He picks up trash on Vashon five days a week and takes it to the county-owned transfer station. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Garyn Potter, Vashon’s only garbage man, has driven a garbage truck on Vashon for seven years. He picks up trash on Vashon five days a week and takes it to the county-owned transfer station.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

Every week Islanders generate about 150 tons of trash. That’s 300,000 pounds of moldy leftovers, dirty diapers and used appliances. It’s about five semi-trucks full of unwanted packaging, smelly food, worn-out clothes and old kitty litter.

From the garbage can under the sink to its final resting place across the water, it’s a long journey for Vashon’s unwanted refuse. And it’s a journey that often begins with Garyn Potter.

About half the homes on Vashon set their garbage cans at the curb each week. And Potter — Vashon’s lone garbage man — sees all that trash.

Potter drives a truck for Vashon Disposal, a company owned by Murrey’s Disposal in Puyallup, and spends his weekdays winding around Island roads, often down long driveways, to empty Vashon’s garbage cans.

“It’s not a job for everybody,” he said one day last week at the end of a shift. “It’s very physical.”

The job involves more than lifting heavy cans, which can weigh as much as 65 pounds. Potter, a friendly, middle-aged man who sports a ball cap and tattoos, literally sprints between his truck and the curbside. He explained that drivers are paid the same no matter how long their routes take, so most work fast to finish quickly.

“Your body gets used to it after a while,” he said. “It’s a lot different than sprinting 10 miles.”

Murrey’s Disposal has about 120 trucks that mostly serve eastern Pierce County, and Vashon is one of its most rural areas. Potter said Vashon’s truck is one of the safest in the fleet and is outfitted with special rear sensors because he has to back down many long and narrow driveways.

“Backing up, for me, is like going forward now,” he said.

Potter, who lives in Tacoma but has worked on the Island for seven years, seemed full of energy even at the end of the day. Laughing often, he talked of how he enjoys working on Vashon. People are nice, he said, and he’s gotten to know many on his routes. And after working with smelly, dirty and sometimes disgusting trash for so long, he said it simply doesn’t faze him anymore.

“I always know when someone has a cat,” he said with a laugh. “Those are the heavy ones. Or a baby.”

Potter said it’s especially fun when children hear his truck coming and run to the street.

“They like me to put the blade down for them,” he said. “They like to see it smash the garbage.”

After Islanders’ garbage is “smashed” in Potter’s truck, he then takes it to the county-owned transfer station on Westside Highway. Nestled in the woods, the Vashon Transfer Station was once home to a working landfill. However, the small landfill was closed in 1999, and now the station is just one stop for garbage on its way to the mainland.

The transfer station was surprisingly quiet one day last week, the only noise coming from Islanders who occasionally pulled up at the recycling center to toss cans, glass and cardboard. Mark Knauss, who oversees the station, said it was a typical day there. Vashon’s transfer station is the county’s smallest, he said, and things can get slow at the center, which only employs three people.

“During the summer it’s a little busier,” he said. “People are doing a lot of cleaning, construction, that kind of thing.”

Eventually a pickup with a bed full of garbage cans pulled into the center’s large, cavernous main building. The driver got out and began to empty the cans over a railing and onto the concrete floor.

Knauss said he sees people haul their own trash all the time, and it’s likely cheaper for those who are willing to save up their garbage for two or three months.

It costs about $16 a month for weekly curb-side pickup and $20 to bring up to 320 pounds of trash to the transfer station, with 6 cents added to the bill for every pound beyond that.

Islander Marcy Summers takes her trash to the transfer station, but not to cut her bills. The environmentally conscious mom and director of a Vashon-based conservation organization says that by recycling, composting and considering packaging when she shops, her family only generates about one can of trash a month. She and a friend share a trip to the transfer station every few months, and she thinks splitting the entrance fee also makes self-hauling a little cheaper.

“That’s a huge plus as well, but I would do it this way even if I didn’t save money,” she said.

Summers said she isn’t against landfills but wants to keep as much as she can out of them.

“It’s not like compost where it turns into something useful. It just mummifies it,” she said.

Back at the transfer station, a rumble could be heard in the distance. Potter had a full load of trash and was ready to dump it.

He backed his truck up onto the surprisingly clean 3,000-square-foot processing floor and emptied a waterfall of black and white trash bags mixed with loose trash. The mound had barely settled when a large tractor pulled into the building to take care of it.

Victor Gunter, who works at the transfer station, said he, too, is unfazed by most of the trash that comes from Vashon.

“Nothing seems strange after you’ve been here for long enough,” he said.

But he’s still shocked when he sees brand new items thrown away. Once he saw a new lawn mower come out of the back of a garbage truck. He would have loved to have kept it, he said, but that’s against county policy.

“Just crush it and forget about it,” he said.

As the tractor shoveled scoops of garbage into a compactor the size of a small building, Knauss explained how the compactor crushes 10 tons of trash at a time with a force of 200 tons per square feet.

“It’s an extreme amount of pressure,” he said.

The result is a 9-foot long, 10-foot tall “loaf” of solid trash, which is loaded into a leak-proof semi-truck. Once the truck is filled with three large garbage loaves, Knauss said, it’s ready to cross the water.

About once a day, a semi weighed down with 52,000 pounds of Islanders’ trash joins commuters and other Islanders in the line at the north-end ferry dock.

“They have to go through the ferry line like everyone else,” Knauss said.

A round-trip ticket for the huge garbage truck costs the county about $115 in ferry fares.

From Fauntleroy, Vashon’s garbage takes a 30-mile trip to Maple Valley, where it joins trash from all over the county at the Cedar Hills Regional Landfill. Though Western Washington is dotted with closed landfills, Cedar Hills, which has been around since the 1960s, is the last operating one on this side of the state.

Thea Severn, a spokesperson for the county’s Solid Waste Division, said the 900-acre landfill is like a giant hill of trash. But it’s also kind of a nice place, she said. The open part of the landfill is only about 30 acres, and the rest is covered by a grassy field where wildflowers sprout in the summer, deer make their home, eagles often soar overhead and even elk and coyotes have been spotted.

“It has an incredible view of Mount Rainier,” Severn said. “It’s very pretty.”

Severn said that about 1.6 billion pounds of trash are added to the landfill each year, coming from every reach of King County except Seattle and the small city of Milton. At that rate, the landfill is expected to fill in 2025. The county once thought it might top off sooner, she said, but when the recession hit, people began to generate less garbage. The phenomenon must be due to the economy, she noted, as recycling rates haven’t changed much.

“The garbage really took a dive with the economy,” Severn said. “People seem to be buying less stuff. People aren’t remodeling their kitchens; there are less (construction) projects.”

In fact, the Cedar Hills landfill saw about 20 percent less trash last year than it did in 2007, when a record 1 million tons were added to the landfill. Vashon, too, generated about 17 percent less trash last year than it did at the economy’s peak in 2007, when Islanders sent about 9,500 tons of trash across the water.

When Islanders’ compacted trash reaches Cedar Hills, it’s further crushed by giant bulldozers that spend the day driving over the garbage of cities from Shoreline to Auburn.

The mix of super-compacted refuse is eventually sealed with heavy-duty plastic lining and entombed under a layer of dirt and grass. While pipes collect moisture and gasses released over time by the decomposing trash, Severn said most of the trash will stay quite preserved. Old landfills have been dug up, she said, and much of the trash was surprisingly intact because it hadn’t been exposed to oxygen.

“There were newspapers that were 50 years old that you could still read,” she said.

Severn said she’s unsure what will happen when Cedar Hills fills up. Many cities in Western Washington now send their trash to landfills on the east side of the state, where there is more open land and dryer conditions are more suited for burying trash. New technologies, she added, may make garbage incineration a more viable option than it was in the 1980s, when the county considered burning the region’s trash. And other methods are currently being developed to turn garbage into reusable products such as oil.

“We’re not sure where we’ll be in another 15 years, if one of those technologies might be useful,” she said.

Islander Scott Durkee, who takes his trash to the transfer station with Summers, said he hopes Vashon’s garbage is never sent to the east side.

“To burn so much diesel fuel to move our trash so far away is really insane,” he said.

Durkee said he believes more and more Islanders are becoming conscious of how much trash they produce and are taking steps to keep waste out of the landfill by recycling, composting and shopping consciously.

Garbage isn’t a priority for everyone, though. Durkee said he sometimes shares trips to the dump with an Islander who fills several trash cans a week by himself.

“It’s pretty amazing how much trash he makes,” Durkee said.

But all Vashon’s trash  — tossed either carelessly or thoughtfully — will for now meet the same demise in Maple Valley.

“The metaphor I always like to draw is the Earth is also an island, an island traveling through space,” Durkee said. “Eventually … it’s going to fill up.”


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