The journey of city trash in the new South Transfer Station



Written by Lily Zhang

Translated by Jocelyn Chui

Recycling is no news to Seattleites. In fact, being known as one of the eco-friendliest cities in the country, Seattle has a waste and that is far more meticulous than many other metropolises. The staff of Seattle Chinese Times, Chinese Information and Service Center, and Asian Counseling and Referral Service took the liberty to tour Seattle Public Utilities’ new South Transfer Station and view the city’s waste management from different perspectives.

 Seattle’s History of Recycling

Seattle’s waste management system has over 100 years of history. Within the last century, the city has gone through industrialization, urbanization, and modernization, which contributed to the continuous growth of the city’s diverse population. As the city evolves, its waste management system continues to become more innovative in terms of holistic planning and technology.

During the earlier years, Seattleites used to collect garbage with horse drawn wagons and dumped them into the Puget Sound. In early 20th century, incineration began the alternative waste treatment until the incineration plants were shut down. In response to a large quantity of municipal solid waste, the government began to establish landfills in Magnolia, Mountlake Terrance and other areas.

Yet, in the late 1960s, the city was running out of land for waste treatment so the government planned to add two more landfills in Kent. At the same time, people were more concerned about the issue of waste pollution and started to develop a stronger awareness of environmental protection. Concepts such as composting and recycling gained popularity and were adopted into the city’s waste management system.

Under the social influence of environmental protection, the city designed two waste collection stations in order to process large quantity of waste efficiently. In 1966, the former South Transfer Station officially opened, followed by the second one in Wallingford. Initially, these two stations did not serve any recycling purpose, but only to transport garbage to Kent.

A turning point occurred in the 1980s when the environmental movement began to take off many US cities. Facing the rise of a new eco trend and financial crisis, the city of Seattle quickly adopted an approach to manage waste through recycling and reduction. Since then, thanks to the endless efforts of the public, government departments, and local residents, Seattle has become one of the US cities with the highest recycling rate.

Nowadays, all non-recyclable waste in Seattle will be transported 3000 miles away to eastern Oregon where private landfills guarantee to treat waste with environmentally safe methods. Meanwhile, Seattle Public Utility (SPU) has established plans to replace the two antiquated transfer stations built in 1960s with the new South Transfer Station and the North Transfer Station that will is scheduled to open at the end of 2016.

South Transfer Station combines recycling with local lifestyle

Built in 2012, the new South Transfer Station is located in South Park next to Duwamish Waterway. Without noticing the garbage collection trucks coming in and out of the station, it is hard to associate the modern looking station with waste management. The exterior design of the new station has incorporated green vegetation. Along with its spacious parking lot and artistic elements, the new station can easily be mistaken as a college building.

In fact, about 180,000 tons of municipal waste is handled safely with efficiency and proper methods within this 10,000-square-foot station every year. Walking into the transfer station in the morning, anyone will be impressed by the systematic operation of the station from garbage collection trucks to green instruction labels, as well as the detailed separation of waste including wood, old tires, and metal.

Susan Hildreth, the operation manager of the new South Transfer Station, said the new station is designed entirely based on eco-friendly guidelines in order to meet the LEED Gold standard. The station utilizes natural light in order to minimize electricity usage. A rainwater collection system is installed on the roof of the station so rainwater can be used to clean the station as well as the garbage trucks in order to avoid secondary pollution on city streets.

The garden design is based on the vegetation distribution prior to the construction of the station so that all plants were native to the location. The trees around the station have long been growing in the area before the garden was in placed. This can greatly reduce the amount of water needed for irrigation. In addition, the decoration and sculpture seen within the station were all made mostly with recycled materials, including the construction waste from the South Park Bridge and old street signs.

The interior of the transfer station is completely enclosed in order to prevent birds from flying in. The power of the two huge trash compactor’s engines can be heard while compressing trash. In the principle of the station is “safety first” where staff are required to follow strict safety guidelines to ensure clean recycling and safe waste management.

Based on the statistics of SPU, each household in Seattle throw away an average of 15 pounds of trash per week. Garbage trucks are sent to collect trash from every business and household from Monday to Saturday. As soon as a truck is filled, it will transport garbage to the transfer station where each truck is weighed before entering the station to unload different types of waste into the designated areas to be compressed.

Each trash compactor can accommodate up to 25 tons of garbage. The compressed waste is then transported to secured cargo boxes to be transported to Oregon by train.


Challenges and success

The city of Seattle is able to recycle or degrade more than half of the municipal waste. With the help of the latest technology and advanced equipment, yard waste is transformed into gardening soil. In fact, more than 100,000 tons of food and yard waste are composed to avoid from being transferred to the landfills every year. Paper, plastic, metal, and glass all go through classification, scanning, and compression before being remade into new products in a local recycling plant.

Despite the active effort in recycling and composting, Seattle still has more room for improvement in terms of proactive waste management.

Hildreth said that the transfer station is involved with nearly the final stage of the waste management system while trash is often generated by every resident initially. More than often, the trash being transported to the transfer station is separated incorrectly which costs the staff to spend more time on reclassifying the trash at their best.

At the same time, Hildreth understands that separating trash can be a complicated task for an average household. Therefore, SPU is trying to analyze their data and identify communities that need better outreach.

She said that “every small piece can be a big problem” and it is always worth the extra seconds to think before discarding that plastic bottle casually.

For more information on scheduling a tour of the new South Transfer Station, visit