Recycling's a civic event on Lopez Island

A recent decision by San Juan County commissioners to hire the nation's largest trash hauler to transport the islands' recycling has touched off a storm of protest in these islands more known for their pastoral back roads and sparkling bays.

Residents have launched a recall drive against the commissioners who supported the new contract. High-school students staged a sit-in at the County Courthouse. And some residents have asked the attorney general to see if the commission violated state law by not holding public meetings before making its decision.

Nowhere are the passions running higher than among the 2,200 residents of Lopez Island, where the mantra "Act locally, think globally" is something of a way of life.

At issue is a 6-year-old system of sorting recyclables on Orcas and San Juan islands and ferrying them to Lopez, where county employees bale and compact them before sending them to the mainland.

Under the new system, all the recyclables except glass will be deposited together and hauled away by Waste Management. The county says it will save $100,000 a year, in part because ferry rides to Lopez will be eliminated.

But on Lopez, where the home-grown recycling program has twice won best rural recycling program in the state, residents charge that the new plan will take work away from local haulers and county employees and give it to Waste Management, a multinational corporation with $2.79 billion in annual revenues.

Not only do they want to hang on to local jobs and control, but they want to hang on to something that might mean even more: their unique, eclectic solid waste, drop box and reuse facility.

To translate: The people on Lopez love their dump.

"It's the heartbeat of the island," said County Commissioner Rhea Miller, a Lopez resident who voted against the new contract. It's one of the ways we've been able to tap into our hearts' desire to keep this a beautiful place."

The dump itself is striking not only for its scenic location — a wooded hillside with filtered views of nearby Fisherman's Bay — but also for its clean and bustling feel. Colorful cubes of crushed aluminum cans sit on a platform high above the dump like a work of modern-day stained glass.

Lopez residents, all of whom seem to know each other, sort their own recyclables.

Over the years, they've recycled everything from amber plastic prescription bottles to the corks and lead seals on wine bottles.

Children on the island chant for visits to the dump the way other kids chant for a trip to Disneyland. And when they get their wish, they rip through bags of cast-off toys as if they'd just won a shopping spree at FAO Schwarz.

Half of a huge shed is devoted to secondhand goods, a bit like Value Village or Goodwill, only everything here is free.

On a recent, off-season Saturday, one island resident in a red plaid hunting cap hugged his new-found, used power mower and declared, "It's a red-letter dump day."

A 12-year-old boy trailed a man with a box into the shed and emerged with a classic western guitar.

A woman found a fringed cowhide jacket with a pair of gloves missing one thumb. A set of slides tucked into a box next to the jacket revealed that it had been worn by the big-thumbed hitchhiker, Sissy Hankshaw, in the movie version of "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." The Lopez woman scooped up the box without even trying on the jacket.

A sign on a beam high in the shed says "You Have Two Choices: You Can Take It or Leave It." The man who posted the sign and grasped its witty relevance is Neil Hanson, a 10-year county employee who presides over the island's only traffic jams with unfailing patience.

Commissioner Miller calls the Hanson, 48, "our garbage guru." Other islanders, in a nod to Hanson's dedication and vision, call the dump "Neil's mall."

Hanson explains his passion for recycling, and also, by implication, his waist-length hair and gentle manner, with a confiding, "I'm from Eugene."

It was Hanson who convinced the county six years ago to ship all the San Juan Islands' recyclables to Lopez. And it was Hanson who conceived of the dump as a model reuse site.

With the recycling, reuse and garbage drop all in one place, every trip to the dump is also a lesson in sustainability. What doesn't get recycled, or taken home, ends up in the green metal coffin at the foot of the hill, destined for a landfill in Eastern Oregon.

There appear to be a few other dumps in the nation with a passionate following — Hanson seems to know them all.

"Have you seen Garbage Reincarnation at Santa Rosa?" he asks, as if it's on the must-see list of every California tourist.

When asked if it's near Berkeley, he smiles.

A last-minute compromise with the county exempted Hanson's recycling program from the county's contract with Waste Management. Lopez Islanders will continue to sort all their own recycling, and Hanson will continue to bale and compact it. But with the other islands' recycling no longer passing through Lopez, he and two-part time county employees have been told they will be retrained as flaggers for the county road crew.

"I find recycling inspiring," he said. "It's relatively uninspiring to put everything in a landfill box."

The gorgeously picturesque archipelago that is the San Juan Islands generates 10,000 tons of garbage each year. Contractors on the islands, tearing down old beach cabins and erecting jutting glass and cedar edifices for clients, have generated what one worker calls "a glacier" of construction debris.

The county's waste sites are lined with dead refrigerators, stoves and computers, all of which must leave the way they came, on an expensive, fossil-fuel-powered journey to the mainland.

In San Juan County, the cost of dumping a load of garbage is $242 a ton, among the highest in the nation. Two-thirds of that cost is in transportation. And the county system was losing $95,000 each year, at the same time it tried to pay off almost $2 million in short- and long-term debt.

Not only is it expensive, it's inefficient, said Jon Shannon, San Juan County solid-waste manager.

Orcas, San Juan, Shaw and Lopez islands have roadside garbage collection, but most of the garbage on the islands isn't picked up by one big truck making weekly rounds. Most of it arrives at one of the three island transfer stations in thousands of separate cars.

Shannon said his priority isn't to save jobs but to make the county's system more efficient.

The boyish-faced Shannon, 43, a Montana native with a close-cropped, graying beard and a master's degree in hydrogeology, is an articulate and knowledgeable guide to the problems of rural solid waste.

He defends the contract with Waste Management, pointing out that the big trash hauler has been carting the islands' garbage for seven years. The only difference is that it will add recycling. And on San Juan Island, where the year-round population of 6,800 triples with the summer influx of boaters and tourists, he said more people will recycle if the county makes it easier.

"We have a dismal rate of recycling," he said.

The county's most pressing solid-waste concern, he said, is the sorry state of the San Juan waste facility, a smelly, haphazard collection of corrugated metal sheds, "Z" walls and giant tractor trailers strewn over several acres at the end of a one-way road.

Toxic chemicals were dumped in with garbage a few years ago, setting off clouds of fumes and summoning a hazardous-materials team. Another time, live ashes were dumped into the garbage trailer and a container started to burn.

"It's a horrible experience," said Shannon. "It's crowded and dirty. Cars sit idling for up to an hour on summer weekends. There's no ability to have any reuse, and no educational component."

The county has submitted a $500,000 grant request to the Department of Ecology to create a state-of-the-art reuse facility — a plan that sounds a lot like the Lopez dump. Residents will be able to exchange reusable household items and drop off half-empty cans of paint and chemicals for others to use. A shop will be set up for senior citizens to repair broken electronics.

And a redesigned site will reduce traffic congestion and a two-way back up at the site's only scale.

Terry Pasco, the San Juan site supervisor, is practically rubbing his hands together about one possible improvement.

With none of the ambivalence shown by Lopez Islanders to big-city solutions, he said, "We may get the islands' first stop light."

Lynn Thompson can be reached at 206-464-2922 or lthompson@seattletimes.com.