by Tyler Brown
Simply put, WasteWise (www.whatcomcounty.us/wastewise) is an interactive database tailored to Whatcom County that allows residents to quickly find out how and where to safely get rid of unwanted items. Some of them can go into the trash bin or be composted; others can be recycled.
Take the old shotgun shells, for example. Enter the term “ammunition” in WasteWise, and it tells you: “Please contact your local police department for information about safe disposal of explosive materials (examples: emergency flares, fireworks and ammunition). CALL BEFORE YOU DRIVE!”
The listing also provides contact information for the Bellingham, Blaine, Ferndale and Lynden police departments.
And the oil and other fluids stored in your garage? WasteWise tells you that a number of auto parts stores will accept those, and again suggests calling first.
Whatcom County Disposal of Toxics
It also says that these items can be brought to Whatcom County Disposal of Toxics, located near Bellingham International Airport at 3505 Airport Drive. The facility is open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on the first Saturday of every month.
At the disposal site, a small, compact area surrounded by chain-link fencing, county residents will find many labels and signs indicating containers for materials.
“A lot of the stuff people bring in to us is household drop offs,” said Walker Brown, an employee at the site. “We get a lot of new homeowners who find things in their basements along with the new house. Mattresses, leftover paints, car parts.”
Capped Plastic Barrels
Inside the small building, polypropylene plastic barrels are filled and then capped to prevent hazardous spills. Empty spray paint cans and vehicle parts line shelves.
“You’d be really surprised what people will bring in here sometimes,” Brown said. “Most of the time it’s DVDs and whatnot.”
“Sometimes it’s radioactive materials,” said Jennifer Hayden, a former employee of the site and now environmental health supervisor at the Whatcom County Health Department.
“There was this guy who came to us with an old 1950s chemistry set that had uranium in it, and right on the packaging it said ‘radioactive material.’ We had no idea what to do about that.”
Hayden, who oversaw the WasteWise program to completion, is able to laugh with Brown about some of their experiences. Hayden said Whatcom County is the first in the state to adopt the convenient WasteWise tool.
County staff worked on the tool for a year, manually entering information into the database with the assistance of local companies to ensure correct and reliable information.
The goal of WasteWise is to create an up-to-date centralized clearinghouse developed with multiple agencies to ensure that factual online information is readily available for the disposal of materials.
Though the location accepts a wide variety of items, including hazardous waste, many things can be picked up by one of the county’s three private trash companies. Residents also have access to seven locations where they can take household waste. Information about both are website links on the WasteWise site. WasteWise helps people understand what can go where.
“I’ll tell you what, I really enjoy pointing people to the tool compared to the binder we used to use from way back when,” Brown said. “Back then, if someone called asking where to dispose of tires, we would be like ‘I dunno, call a tire store?’ because we really had no idea about some things.”
During the height of the pandemic in March 2020, disposal of materials halted for a time. Then a large wave of disposals suddenly started coming back in. The employees chalk it up to lockdown safety measures.
Facility Fills Quickly
Brown and Hayden said that the location now fills up fast and often.
In the back of the site, empty plastic barrels are stacked horizontally along a row of hedges. A basketball hoop sits opposite the barrels with its back to the building.
The employees point and laugh, saying shooting baskets relieves stress during slow business hours.
Hayden, who said she worked at the site for 10 years, moved over to the health department in 2015.
“I have a personal connection and high standard with this facility, so making this work was a really big deal to me,” Hayden said.
“We want to ensure that this facility is run very well, checked on by the department heads regularly, meets regulations and guidelines, and, especially, has good customer service, because the service they provide here is invaluable.”
One problem the team confronted was when Whatcom County voted to place a ban on single-use plastics effective July 31.
“It’s gonna take a while to figure that one out,” Brown said.
App Might Be Developed
For now, the tool offers clarity where there was often confusion or uncertainty. Hayden said that, with appropriate funding, WasteWise could continue to expand. An app may be developed at some point.
Hayden said that cost to the county would be too high for now, but that the existing tool will continue to be useful.
“The entire reason I wanted this was because, if I’m confused about something, then everyone is confused,” Hayden said. “We want to make things as easy as possible for people who need help.”
Trucks, vans, and even motor homes make their way through the gates and drive up to the disposal entrance. Recently, a man stepped out of his vehicle, adjusted his glasses and asked the employees if it would be all right to dispose of used motor oil filters like the one he was holding in his right hand.
Brown raised a finger and asked, “Have you had the chance to use WasteWise?”
Tyler Brown is a recent graduate of Western Washington University’s journalism program. His dream is to become a foreign correspondent someday.