When you throw away a piece of trash, do you ever wonder where it goes and who deals with it? If you live in the city of Seattle, there’s a good chance that your garbage ends up at the city’s dump in South Park, right off Highway 99.
Let’s say you’ve just finished eating a chocolate bar (it was delicious).
You toss the wrapper in the trash (after confirming that it’s not recyclable, of course. After all, this is Seattle).
What then? You most likely forget about that wrapper and move on with your life. But it’s got a whole journey ahead of it.
It goes into your curbside trash can, it’s picked up by garbage collectors, and then it’s taken to one of the city’s two transfer stations – the North Transfer Station in Wallingford or the South Transfer Station in South Park.
Suzanne Hildreth is the operations manager at the South Transfer Station. She said between 70 and 80 percent of the city’s non-recyclable trash ends up at her facility, depending on the day. So let’s assume that’s where your chocolate wrapper goes.
The South Transfer Station is a large building, somewhat reminiscent of an airplane hangar. It was renovated a few years ago and boasts environmentally friendly design elements like rainwater harvesting for cleanup activities.
On one side, residents drop off unwanted furniture, appliances, garbage and more. On the other side, collection services bring in the rubbish from around the city – including your wrapper.
It’s dumped directly on the concrete floor where it joins literal tons of trash and yard waste in colorful piles that are like small mountains. The whole place smells faintly of something akin to rotten fruit.
The workers at the dump in South Park see all kinds of things come onto this floor.
Diane Finch has been working at the South Transfer Station for about 28 years. She said very little surprises her these days.
“We get hot tubs, we get boats,” Finch said. “I’ve seen caskets come in and people wondered if there’s somebody in there.”
Her colleague Hector Casador sums it up: “Weird is kind of normal here,” he said.
But Casador said he likes his job.
“The job here is very important. If we’re not here, obviously doing this, our city wouldn’t be as beautiful as it is,” he said.
Finch agrees. She enjoys her job. It suits her, she said.
“I’m not office material, I don’t think. I don’t do well in offices and closed doors and stuff like that. I’d rather be out where I can run around and, you know, just be me. You can be loud here, you can laugh, you can joke, you don’t have to be quiet and whisper. So it’s kind of fun,” she said.
Finch said people used to laugh at her when they found out where she worked because she was considered a "girly girl". But Finch said it doesn’t bother her working at a place where getting dirty is just part of the job.
“I figure I’ve still got the weekends. My money is clean like yours, I can go home and take a shower and look like a girl later on if I need to."
Workers like Finch and Casador do all kinds of jobs at the station. They clean out the "wheel bath" garbage trucks drive through to avoid tracking "garbage juice" (yes, that’s the technical term) onto city streets. They let people know what they can and can’t throw away at the dump.
So let's get back to your chocolate wrapper.
Once it’s dumped on the concrete at the South Transfer Station, it’s pushed towards a large hole in the middle of the floor by a small backhoe. It lands in a compactor below and is squished into a trash brick that’s then loaded into a container and taken to a rail yard.
"Six days a week, a mile long train goes down to Arlington, Oregon and it will be dumped in a cell in the landfill in Oregon," said Suzanne Heldrith, operations manager.
Hildreth said, even with the drastic rise in Seattle’s population, they’re not seeing the amount of garbage produced by the city keep pace.
“We’ve implemented several recycling and organics mandates in that time,” she said.
More than 50 percent of Seattle’s waste is recycled or composted, diverting it from the landfill. Still, according to data from Seattle Public Utilities, the South Station processed more than 240,000 tons of garbage in 2017.
Both Finch and Casador said the hardest part of their job is seeing something thrown out that could be re-used.
“There’s a lot of wastefulness,” Finch said.
She said she’s seen all kinds of things thrown away, including a barely used washing machine and all the doors from a house because their owners didn’t like the way they looked. She said some people just want to be rid of things, they don’t think about re-use.
“I’ve learned to get used to it now. It used to kill me to see people throw nice things away, especially because you can’t take it with you,” Finch said. “That used to bug me, but now I’ve seen it so much it’s like, oh well, there goes another one.”
Finch said she encourages people to think before they throw things away – could the items be re-used? Have they been sorted properly into trash, recyclables and compost? Is there anything dangerous in your trash, like chemicals that could create reactions, or coals from a fire that could start a fire if they’re not completely cold?
It’s easy to simply throw things in the garbage and move on, Casador said, but a huge amount of work goes on at the other end.
“Take the time to really separate your garbage. It doesn’t take that much time and it really helps not just yourself, but everybody in the long run,” he said.