City Life Versus Island Life ?♻️

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Moving away from Seattle has shown us the wide variety of things we took for granted. It’s been a full year, and they seem to become clearer each day. In the city, trucks and sanitation workers arrived every week at our house and took away our garbage, recycling, and yard waste. The water from our taps seemed as infinite as the hole into which it disappeared. Natural gas was piped directly into our homes from a city-wide network that I never really understood. Is there a giant tank somewhere?

These features are not unique to Seattle, or any city really. These services (and taking them for granted) are a standard part of American life. It’s easy not to pay attention to garbage when a truck reliably takes it away.

Moving to Orcas Island was a stark reminder of how one lives without the services of a city. While there are waste, water, and gas systems on the island, they are mostly limited to more densely populated areas around Eastsound, the island’s main commercial area. Living where we do, twenty minutes from town, means we’re on our own for the most part. We use the same electricity and internet networks as everyone else, but that’s about it.

This means that managing garbage, for example, is something that has become a bigger part of our lives. Because no truck arrives to whisk it away, we transport it ourselves. There is probably no better way to get acquainted with the waste you and your family produce than collecting it, loading it into your vehicle, and driving it to a transfer station (or what some call “the dump”). It works like this for us today…

We have a couple of small trash cans outside the guest house for garbage and pet waste. The status of these cans is our indication that a trip to the transfer station may be required. Inside, we collect recycling in large dog food bags and store them in a downstairs closet the dogs can’t access.

We don’t buy beer in bottles anymore because they are big and heavy. Instead, most of our beer comes from refillable growlers or cans that are rinsed, crushed, and collected in a paper grocery bag. We could just throw them in with the recycling, but we recently learned that separating them is more cost-effective for the organization that runs the recycling service.

Like most people, we usually wait until the last possible moment to take the trash away. The closet where we collect dog food bags of recycling is tiny and used for other storage, including our little chest freezer. Three or four bags can make fetching chops for dinner a bit more difficult. Five or six become a problem.

Yesterday, we packed the car full of trash and recycling for the trip. This was the first trip with new waterproof floorboards and a cargo liner that protects the back. The carpet ones were not going to fare well in this situation. This will be even more important when crabbing season comes around.

On the way, I asked Sachi, “How often do you think we do these runs?” She said probably every two months or so. An SUV’s worth of trash and recycling every two months didn’t seem too bad.

The Exchange

The transfer station on Orcas Island is called The Exchange and has a beloved on-site thrift store where a bit of bartering is sometimes required. On my first visit, fresh from Seattle, I was not aware of this fact. I was interested in something and asked about the price. The attendant said, “How much do you think it’s worth?” I stuttered. While a colored sticker gave me a price range, I had no idea what to say and threw out a number designed to seem respectful and fair: $20. The person smiled patronizingly and said, “You don’t know how this works, do you?” Apparently, I had unknowingly high-balled in a situation where a low-ball was expected. Islanders cherish the idea that at The Exchange, you can pay what you can afford.

Using the trash facilities is based on the honor system. We pulled up to a small, portable office that had recently been retrofitted to include the now-ubiquitous plexiglass sneeze guard as protection for the worker inside. The smiling woman inside said, “Whatcha got?” and our reply was, “Two trash, one recycling”. This meant that we had approximately two 32 gallon containers of trash, and one of recycling. Our total was $31, which is about one-third of what the average Seattle household pays in two months. We paid by credit card and backed up to one of the multiple 48 foot long dumpsters placed below ground level for trash and recycling. After two months of collecting, it all goes away in less than a minute.

The whole operation is run by a non-profit called Orcas Recycling Service. The trash leaves the island by boat, is then transferred onto rail cars and transported to a landfill in Eastern Washington. We pay the highest rates in the state to get rid of our trash, so it’s no surprise that there is a huge emphasis on recycling and reuse.

All-in-all, it’s not a bad or expensive process, as long as you don’t mind being in the same car as your garbage every once in a while. Open windows help. So do pick-up trucks, which I can imagine being in our future. For us, it’s another form of self-sufficiency. We are our own sanitation workers.

This has been on our minds as the new house is coming together. For over a year now, our main trash can has lived under the kitchen sink. In the guest house, it’s in a corner cabinet with an awkward double-swing door. It’s fine, but the idea of a pull-out trash can seems like the pinnacle of luxury. Having a dedicated place for recycling sounds dreamy. We spend a lot of time dreaming these days. 

The past week has seen the infrastructure of remote living take shape at the house. A 1000 gallon propane tank is now buried just outside the house that will help us cook and stay warm even if the power goes out.


Beside it is a big hole containing a 1750 gallon water storage tank which will fill with well water and give us a buffer if the well can’t produce for some reason. Yet another hole will soon be filled by a septic tank. As always, these holes were created with a noisy excavator. Our poor neighbors.  

Water Tank
Water Tank

Between on-site propane, a well, a septic system, and our trash runs, we’ll be pretty self-sufficient in terms of utilities. Eventually, we’ll also have solar and start to eat away at the electricity delivered to the house. The fiber-optic internet connection will prevail.

Over the many years we expect to live on Orcas, one reality will remain. No truck will ever arrive to carry our trash away. We will always have to load it into a vehicle and take it to the transfer station every couple of months. I don’t mind. For us, it’s a game. We want to produce less trash and those runs are the metric. It feels like we’re doing our part as islanders to learn and experiment with ways to produce less of it.

It helps that today, taking the trash away feels like a field trip and a chance to be out in the world during a quarantine. There are friendly people there. And our masks… they help with odor too.


Ready for Rain is  a newsletter that's personal

On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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