Garbology -- Helping Serve Creation Through Faithful Patterns of Daily Living

Holden Village, located in the remote and rugged North Cascade Mountains of Washington state, greets up to 7,000 guests annually, which involves having a full-time garbologist on staff to handle waste.
Holden Village garbologist Mattias Olshausen works in the compost bin. Dining hall scraps (excluding meat) provide more than enough compost for the village's summer gardens.
Staff and volunteers at Holden Village pick through all trash, even on snowy winter days, to sort out recyclable and burnable materials, reducing the amount of garbage that must be hauled out by barge to an authorized landfill.
By most definitions, Holden Village is a singular community - reachable only by boat and bounded by the Glacier Peaks Wilderness area, it is one of the most isolated year-round communities in the lower 48 states.

Holden Village is located in an isolated area of Washington State’s North Cascade Mountains above Lake Chelan. Its mission “is to welcome all people into the wilderness to be called, equipped and sent by God as we share rhythms of Word and Sacrament, work, recreation and study, intercession and healing.”

Yet in another way the Lutheran retreat center is no different from most places.

“As special as this place is, it produces garbage just like any other community,” Mattias Olshausen, Holden Village’s full-time garbologist, said.

Garbology is defined as the study of modern culture through the analysis of what is thrown away as garbage or trash. At Holden, garbology is not a study but a practice, a process, even a way of life.Holden requires all staff and volunteers to work in garbology a couple hours a month. Guests are strongly encouraged to sort their trash – and even carry it back home with them, if at all possible.
Holden Village is also the site of a massive environmental clean-up project. The village was once a mining town. When the copper mine closed in 1957, about 8.5 million tons of tailings remained, covering about 90 acres on the edge of the village.

The tailings have been leaching contaminants, degrading the water quality of the creek running beside the
village. Under the direction of the U.S. Forest Service, the mining company, Rio Tinto, has begun a remediation project that will cost millions and take years.

The Forest Service has described this as the largest and most complex mine cleanup project within the national forest system. Next to that, Holden’s garbology practices seem tiny, yet handling the waste produced by up to 7,000 visitors a year is no small matter.

Despite ardent efforts to recycle and compost discarded materials, the village still produced more than 3,800 cubic feet of landfill waste last year. All of that has to be hauled down a switch-back mountain road, where it is loaded onto a barge for the long trip down Lake Chelan and then trucked to a landfill. The village paid over $3,000 in dumping fees last year. It cost another $3,000 to get rid of hazardous waste materials (e.g., old paint, fluorescent light tubes) through an authorized handler.

Holden’s efforts to minimize waste begin with attempts avoid creating it. Many of the practices take minimal effort and may seem small, but they all raise consciousness: Printing on both sides of a sheet of paper; serving leftovers instead of throwing out food; reusing envelopes instead of printing new; buying items with minimal packaging; serving beverages in a glass instead of aluminum cans.

According to Olshausen, villagers make a major effort to recycle everything from bottles to boxes, but recyclables still account for only 10 to 15 percent of the solid waste generated. Landfill material represent 35 to 40 percent, and the rest is burned.

Holden staff members and volunteers get a hands-on understanding of trash issues during their garbology shifts. They begin by breaking down boxes and cartons that are placed in a mechanized baler for recycling. Staff and volunteers then move to an outdoor sorting deck, where they pick through trash by hand, even in the coldest winter months, sorting recyclables, burnables and landfill.

Finally, staff and volunteers hike to the compost bins some distance from the village proper, where they use shovels to chop food scraps for composting. The compost is enough for Holden’s summer gardens.

Beside the satisfaction inherent in this activity, staff and volunteers are sometimes rewarded for their efforts by catching a glimpse of the sweet-faced, but shy, pine martens, who like to hang around the bins.

The job of lead garbologist usually rotates annually. Olshausen will have put in 14 months by the time
he leaves at the end of May. Before that he had volunteered for a summer as assistant ga
rbologist. He is finishing up his master’s degree in American history, but his garbology experience has
changed him, he said. He’s exploring the possibility of finding a non-profit waste management organization to work for.

Olshausen is especially sensitive to the abundance of plastic in the waste stream, estimating it accounts for about 95 percent of Holden’s contributions to the landfill.

It involves a change of mindset, Olshausen suggests. In his view producers and consumers today are obsessed with using plastic to address what he calls paranoia about food freshness.

“If we could find alternative materials, we as a society could cut back on our waste by so much,” Olshausen said.

Yet it’s even more than avoiding plastics.

Olshausen believes America needs to change its view of garbage and the people who handle it. He points out that Holden created and elevated the position of garbologist so waste and those involved in waste management would be treated with respect. To Olshausen that is “definitely a new world view.”