Julie McDonald Commentary: Speakers Talk Trash and Recycling Do’s and Don’ts


Last year, Lewis County threw away 101,060 tons of garbage — the equivalent of more than 200 Boeing 747s, according to Melanie Case, the county’s solid waste recycling program coordinator for 28 years and a former reporter for The Chronicle.

“That’s a statistic that we did not want to reach,” she told members of the St. Helens Club in Chehalis earlier this year. “We’ve never had that much garbage.”

In fact, the 2022 solid waste budget was based on collecting 89,000 tons and shipping it by semi three hours to a regional landfill near The Dalles, Oregon.

“Gosh, it’s just mind boggling,” she said of the garbage volume. “So to put this in perspective, I looked at what a Boeing 747 typically weighs. It’s 490 tons. So essentially, we threw away the equivalent of 207 Boeing 747s last year.”

The 2023 budget is based on collecting 92,000 tons of garbage.

“So that’s why we need everyone — all Lewis County residents — to focus on reducing the amount of waste that they throw away,” Case said. “We are doing a fair job of recycling, but we could do a lot better.”

The curbside recycling program handled approximately 3,600 tons of material last year. That number will increase with expansion of curbside recycling throughout the county. The dropoff programs at Morton and Centralia recycled 97 tons of paper, 10 tons of used clothing, 232 tons of glass, 568 tons of metal, 236 tons of cardboard and 175 tons of yard waste (grass clippings and leaves), and 2,300 tons of chippable yard debris used by the city of Centralia’s biosolids composting program. The recycling program also collected 888 refrigerators and freezers, 1,500 non-refrigerated appliances such as washers, dryers and hot water tanks, and 240 tons of tires.

“It does seem to a lot of people like once you roll your garbage and recycling cart out to the curb, it just magically goes away,” Case said.

But she shared the rest of the story.

“Some residents have told us they believe it’s OK to litter because it provides jobs for people,” Case said. “If they only knew how expensive it was for the county and the state to hire people to go on the roadsides to pick up litter.”

The county works with a low-offender inmate litter crew and contracts with another crew, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced cutbacks in those programs.

Lewis County operates two transfer stations — one in Centralia, the other in Morton — where all the county’s garbage is processed before leaving for greener pastures. Case works at the Centralia station, which opened after Centralia’s landfill closed in 1994. It became an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site because, when it opened in the 1950s, safeguards like protective barriers to prevent contamination of the groundwater weren’t used.

“There’s our earth environment — our beautiful land, air and water — that we need to protect and keep clean,” Case said.

She showed packaging that can be recycled and some that can’t and offered a few tips:

• When shopping, consider what you’ll do with the packaging. Instead of buying spinach in a plastic container, purchase it in a bunch.

• Buy eggs in recyclable and reusable cardboard rather than plastic containers.

• Reuse plastic forks and spoons.

• Shake your hands after washing in a public restroom before using the air dryer or paper towel dispenser.

What can be recycled at the curbside? 

• Any plastic bottle, jug or dairy containers like those for sour cream, but not the lids because they simply fall through the metal conveyors at the sorting center outside Tacoma, where they’re swept up as garbage. 

• Paper products like mail, newspapers, magazines, office paper, corrugated cardboard, cereal and other cardboard boxes and paper bags. 

• Aluminum cans can be recycled but shouldn’t be flattened because computerized automated recycling tosses flat items in with paper where it will be discarded.

• With tin cans, leave lids slightly attached to cans and tucked inside to avoid having loose lids recycled with the paper. Or people can store their lids and toss them into the scrap metal bin at the transfer stations.

• Rechargeable and lithium and nightcap batteries go to the hazardous waste facility for recycling, but most household batteries today can be thrown in the garbage because they no longer contain hazardous chemicals, Case said.

Items that can’t be recycled include:

• Shredded paper

• Frozen food boxes, which are infused with wax so they can’t be recycled

• Wax-coated cardboard milk and other cartons that are also infused with wax

• Paper or plastic coffee cups

• Deli trays

• Plastic boxes

• Plastic bags

• Glass

Accompanying Case were three solid waste volunteers — Lynn Ford, Mary Jean Marsh and Gerald Durr — who also offered suggestions for “upcycling,” which is taking something no longer usable and giving it a second life and new practical function. For example, people create greenhouses from two-liter pop bottles and cold frames to cover tomato plants from water bottles. A large wire spool can serve as a picnic table. Plastic clam shells containing berries can be reused as mini-greenhouses to plant seeds.

“Everyone is so creative about how they can reuse garbage instead of throwing it away,” Case said.

Food waste typically accounts for more than 20 percent of what’s thrown away each year by Washington businesses and residents. State lawmakers are working on programs to reduce food waste. Other legislation would ban Styrofoam peanuts used for packaging, which can’t be recycled, and implement a bottle deposit bill similar to the one in Oregon.

“We have volunteers who give thousands of hours each year offering workshops on reducing waste, living a zero-waste lifestyle, recycling, composting, as well as organizing special events to help people recycle and reduce some of the materials that they would like to get rid of instead of just throwing them in the landfill,” Case said.

A leaf exchange program allows people to recycle yard waste as mulch for gardens, she said. In 2022, the county collected 10 tons of Christmas trees for chipping and 740 pounds of holiday lights for recycling. 

A few years ago, someone inadvertently forgot a keepsake ornament on a tree with a photo of a baby. A year later, as people started decorating for the holidays, Case posted a photo of the ornament on Facebook asking if anyone was missing it. Someone recognized and claimed it.

“Our workers have reunited brides with their lost wedding rings, businesses with their bank deposit bags, and families with keepsakes,” Case said. 

They even discovered an urn in a recycling bin that had inadvertently been tossed by cleaners. They contacted the funeral home and reconnected the remains with the family.

“One of our workers says it’s never a dull moment,” Case said.

LeMay, which provides garbage recycling and organics pickup, is building a composting center in Centralia, which is expected to open later this year for large recyclers like the transfer stations. It is expected to cut down on costs for hauling those materials to Silver Springs Organics at Rainier, Washington.

Lynn Ford, who described herself as the queen of leftovers, shared a handout with leftovers ideas from Savethefood.com, https://savethefood.com/, which says 40 percent of all the food in America is wasted. Google also offers wonderful recipes using whatever you might have in the refrigerator. She learned from her nieces and nephews to Google TikTok Pasta for baked feta pasta with cheese, noodles, tomatoes, and olive oil. Making a list before shopping and sticking to it can curtail food waste, she said. She also shared a list of food storage tips. Ford uses recycled popsicle sticks or plastic utensils stuck into wine corks to hold placards identifying plants in her garden. Master gardeners also write the names of plants or seed starts on cut-up used mini-blinds. 

Leftover toilet paper roll cardboard can be stuffed with lint from the dryer to use as fire starters, like kindling.

Mary Jean Marsh spoke about composting, green products, and walking back to the car for the shopping bags in the trunk instead of buying new ones. 

“I pour my old hummingbird nectar into my compost bucket because the bacteria that eat your compost, they love sugar,” Marsh said.

She reuses shopping bags, bread bags, and sandwich bags. A wool dryer ball can replace fabric softener sheets. She buys laundry detergent tablets or sheets instead of big jugs filled primarily with water. She purchases shampoo in bars instead of primarily water-filled plastic bottles, toothpaste bites in recyclable containers rather than plastic tubes, and deodorant in cardboard pushup containers rather than plastic.

“It’s not like the greatest deodorant, but I really want to have a planet for my grandchildren,” Marsh said. 

She also buys 100 percent recycled toilet paper delivered to her door from a company called Who Gives a Crap, which donates half its profits to building toilets and improving sanitation in the developing world.

Gerald Durr spoke of buying potato chips in paper rather than plastic bags, using solar-heated water bottles for greenhouses, and composting, transforming raw organic material into stable rich substances. He noted that aerobic bacteria need air to do the composting. Without air, anaerobic bacteria eat it up and leave a nasty smell. Near his house, he uses a compost tumbler with a handle to keep it turned so it’ll grow hot enough to decompose rapidly. He empties the tumbler into a large compost pile farther from his home and turns over the soil to aerate it.

“If you keep your meat, bones and dairy out, that will help cut down on the attraction of raccoons and things like that,” Durr said.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.