If I can run the Matinicus Island recycling program, I figure I can probably run the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad. Or maybe NASA.
Our very small trash system is not actually a difficult program to organize; it just sounds absurdly complex when I try to explain it to people who think that trash should more or less disappear from the curb by magic. In fact, attempts to explain how it takes 36 hours to "go to the dump" sound like a shaggy-dog style joke. After 15 minutes of me rambling on about once-a-month ferries and green water splashing over the deck and banana boxes and wondering just who the devil it is who drinks all that Jagermeister, they're waiting for the punch line.
I know; we don't call it "the dump" anymore.
Back on 10th of March I was aboard the ferry with the U-Haul that would be that month's recycling truck. That morning, Rockland Harbor resembled a lake; returning later that afternoon, the sea surface twinkled. Twinkled, that is, like summer. I even had the truck window down for a while as I ate my lunch. I felt very fortunate; the brilliance of snowy islands, snowy Camden Hills and a snowy Owls Head Light made for some gorgeous scenery. The tourists don't see this off-season beauty, and a calm day on the bay is a pleasure indeed. Calm seas for "trash day" seem an especially rare treat, after 11-plus years of trucking the garbage off my island.
Trying to explain all the details that have to be worked out makes me feel like an absolute logistics mastermind. People ask, "So, how do they come collect your trash?" This triggers a round of sputtering and a red-faced, wild-eyed rant from me, but after I have calmed downed, I attempt a repeated explanation, astonished that there is anybody left with even the faintest interest in Matinicus who has not heard all of this before. There is no such thing as "they," meaning any established business or agency of government that comes to do anything with our trash — or for that matter, our electricity, our injured and ill, our students or much else. There is no they, I repeat to all who will listen; there is just us. If we want the recycling hauled to the mainland, we've got to haul it. If we want the power lines fixed after a storm, we have to be equipped to get up there and fix them. If we want the roads plowed, somebody has to be willing to go out in the cold and start up a plow truck. If we want take-out for supper, too danged bad.
People from other islands ask me how our recycling system works. College students who take an interest in the ways of Maine's more remote communities ask me how it all works. At least they understand that the explanation could take a while; when somebody on line in the grocery store asks, I am in trouble. It works, I can at least say if hurried, rather well.
Once a week in the winter and twice a week in the summer, plus by appointment, a few volunteers unlock the Matinicus recycling facility, which consists of a cluster of neat wooden sheds, without electricity, near the post office on property belonging to the island church. Homeowners bring their sorted and rinsed recyclables and limited other trash, and with the help of the volunteers, everything is bagged or boxed to be ready for the trip to the mainland. Most people are glad to have an easy way to get rid of their junk mail, food containers, and above all the piles of cardboard boxes, as this community relies more than most on mail order. Every island household could quickly be buried in cardboard boxes.
It's my job to look over the very peculiar Matinicus ferry schedule and figure out when to reserve a space for a truck. Check it out online if you really want to be left scratching your head; our ferry schedule is planned each December for the upcoming year, based not on the calendar or the clock but on the tides, as our wharf is only accessible for half the tide. You will notice that we only get one trip per month in the winter, and a few more in the summer, for a total of 30-32 per year. Only the smallest ferry in the Maine State Ferry Service fleet will physically fit into our harbor, and there is room for only three trucks down the center line of that vessel, the M/V Everett Libby, so to get one of those truck reservations sometimes requires planning several months ahead. As a rule I have to decide one to four months out which ferries I will use for the trash runs. Neglecting to plan ahead, particularly in the warmer months, would result in overloaded recycling sheds and no way to get the material off the island.
I reserve a rental box truck from a local agent, grateful to do business with one who understands the vagaries of the ferry service. This is not about shopping around for who might charge five bucks less; this is about making sure that the rental agent doesn't say something like, "Oh, I don't have the truck you asked for today, so I'll give you the bigger size for the same price. That'll be OK, right?" No, it is not, because every foot of deck space on the ferry is reserved and paid for, and a longer-than planned truck could be turned away (and remember — there is no trip the next day!) I have also had rental agents forget to enter my reservation into their computer, resulting in no truck on ferry day; not a fun time. Our recycling system depends upon truck rental agents who pay attention to business. Lately I've been using Camden Irving for U-Haul rental. Many thanks!
Why rent a truck? Wouldn't it be cheaper to own a truck? No, considering I need a mainland-legal, insured, always-reliable truck for use roughly once a month—oh, and I have no garage for it. When you do the math, renting makes sense.
Needless to say it seems wrong to haul nothing but air in a truck across the bay, so I accept what incidental freight needs moving. "Freeboard Logistics," so-called with tongue firmly in cheek and no business address, hauls washing machines and 2x4s, underground cable and PVC pipe, lube oil and kayaks and big sacks of flour, sugar, dog chow, bird seed, wood pellets, coal, fertilizer and mulch. On this last trip, the power company needed one sheet of plywood with which to build a crate to ship a part off for repair, and they wanted it whole. You can't fit a sheet of plywood into an airplane.
A complete description of the complexities of our recycling and waste-handling process would go on for several pages, but suffice it to say that we rely on many hands and strong volunteer backs and on taxpayers who are willing to let this project continue. After centuries of "every man for himself" trash disposal — meaning a lot of backyard burn barrels and overboard dumping, holdovers from the pre-plastic age — we now have a clean and inexpensive system available year-round to anybody who chooses to participate, and most do.
There was initially some question as to whether Matinicus taxpayers would pony up to run an experimental recycling program. "It's never going to work," said most, each assuming his neighbors would mock the very idea, but the people who actually showed up at Town Meeting said yes. That was 12 years ago. Compared with any other municipality in western civilization, our residents get a deal on solid waste costs; we own nothing but four 8-by-16-foot sheds and we pay no wages. It costs us the truck rentals and ferry fares, some flights and hotel rooms and meals for the truck driver (because this whole round trip takes more than a day,) the (perfectly reasonable) disposal fees for our electronics and a small quantity of non-recyclable material, and a bunch of trash bags and work gloves. That, and my attendance at an annual two-day training workshop in solid waste management offered by the Maine Resource Recovery Association. I call it "dump school."
In recent years we have also held an annual Household Hazardous Waste Collection Day each summer, when the professionals come out with their specialized truck to take used motor oil, old marine paint, and any other chemicals the homeowners and mariners may have. An HHW collection is not inexpensive, but many of us view that cost as worthwhile protection of our drinking water.
We don't store chemicals at our facility, because that could be dangerous, but if a homeowner has a chemical in a container that doesn't seem reliable — say, a rusty can of antifouling paint, for example — we can give him a new, tightly-lidded bucket in which to store the entire can until the HHW crew arrives. Other than that, we take nearly everything that won't rot, stink or attract rats at the sheds and store it until "truck day." We take paper and cardboard and every type of plastic container, rinsed of course. We take glass and metal and plastic bags. We take batteries, fluorescent bulbs, electronics and mercury switches. We take reusable packing material, books for our informal "recycling shed lending library," and Goodwill stuff. We take fishermen's rope. We take "clean" trash, meaning no food waste, diapers, liquid or moldy stuff, that waste the industry calls "putrescibles." There isn't much real trash, actually, because so much household waste can be recycled. We take appliances, mattresses and beach-clean-up bags filled with myriad bits of Styrofoam from long-demolished buoys. We take returnables, and the deposit money goes to island projects such as the Historical Society, the Ladies Aid and to provide free CPR classes to anyone who wants one.
Ten to 12 times a year, on ferry day, a handful of islanders gather at the shed at the appointed time to quickly load the truck for its return trip. The ferry only stays at Matinicus for an hour.
The making of the whole recycling project might just be the large quantity of cardboard boxes, which accumulate on Matinicus due to the grocery delivery mechanism offered by Shaws and Penobscot Island Air. Islanders can fax a grocery order to Rockland, somebody at the store packs our requested items into boxes, usually banana boxes, and the flying service brings them out. As the plane arrives, we assemble at the airstrip to collect our provisions. Those banana boxes, already used twice, will now be used a third time to ship junk mail and catalogs, pickle jars and beer bottles, scrap metal and magazines and unwanted household items to the recycling facility, the redemption center and Goodwill. The boxes stack in the rental truck like building blocks and make loading efficient and safe. If you've ever lifted a banana box filled with National Geographics over your head, you'll know that's just about the most you should reasonably ask somebody working for free to hoist!
I get some very nice comments from people saying "Oh, it's wonderful what you're doing," and it is not false modesty when I respond with "It's not me, it's us, lots of people volunteer to help with this," because that is absolutely true. What matters is that we get over this idea that stuff like solid waste management just happens by itself. Or, for that matter, that it's "gross." The work is not even close to gross.
Loading the truck back on the 10th of March, volunteer (and town assessor) John asked me, "How was the trip?" "It was a privilege to be on the water today," I responded. It is not too often you can say that on a cold-weather trash day on the Maine State Ferry.