I’m probably dating myself, but where I grew up on the east side of Washington State, most families never had anything remotely resembling the convenience of curbside trash collection. For most, the common practice was to save all of your trash up, load it in the back of a truck, and haul it to “the dump.” Curbside recycling collection? Very funny – it didn’t exist. Any recycling at all, my friend? Well, the industrious and frugal could save their aluminum cans and redeem them for a few cents each at a small recycling center. That’s it.
As King County residents, we all enjoy the convenience a highly developed and efficient trash and recycling system – light years ahead of what I experienced in my youth. You simple put your trash, recycling, and yard waste carts out at the curb once a week and the Garbage Fairy makes it magically disappear by the time you get home from work. But the question I’m frequently asked is, “Well, where does it all go?”
For this article, let’s talk about your trash. After you put it out at the curb, a friendly Waste Management driver will stop, deftly manipulate the machine’s hydraulic “grabbers” and lift your trash cart into the air, dumping its contents into the truck’s hopper. This is what we refer to as “automated collection.” It saves a significant amount of time when compared to a driver having to hop out of the truck at each stop – kind of like the difference between broadband and dial-up internet.
Once the truck is full, the driver will head for the nearest drop off site. We call these sites transfer stations and we just happen to have one here in Kirkland called the Houghton Transfer Station. This facility, along with several others sprinkled around the county, is owned and operated by the King County Solid Waste Division (KCSWD).
The load of trash is dumped into a large, enclosed trailer at the transfer station. It then officially becomes the responsibility of King County to manage and transport the waste safely. Once the large truck trailer is full, the top is closed and a semi hooks up and hits the road for our one and only landfill hidden amongst the trees in Maple Valley called the Cedar Hills Landfill. At the newer transfer stations, the trash is actually compacted inside the trailer before it leaves the facility to minimize the number of trips, maximize efficiency, and lower transportation costs.
Once the truck arrives at the landfill, it’s weighed and the driver is directed to the area where active landfilling is underway. The trailer is backed into the landfill area and it is detached from the truck. The trailer is then picked up by a large machine or “tipper” which lifts the trailer high into the air and dumps it contents out quickly and into the perfect spot. Like clockwork, a large bulldozer with steel wheels will level off and compact the trash to make sure that it takes up as little space as possible.
And it’s here that your bag of trash will be entombed for eternity. So when you throw a plastic bottle or an aluminum can in the garbage, it will never be recycled. The resource is lost forever and will have to be replaced with virgin natural resources.