Clarence and Peggy Douville of Wrenshall came first, followed by Shirley Straub of Barnum — their vehicles loaded to the hilt with bottles, newspapers and overstuffed bags. They came Wednesday to the solid-waste transfer station in Carlton County, each carting several weeks' worth of home garbage and recycling.

“It’s a great resource,” Peggy said. “We have to keep recycling for the Earth, and it’d be a mess (at home) otherwise.”

Despite states of emergencies and stay-at-home orders, solid-waste transfer stations are among essential services remaining open throughout the Northland — although with some new conditions, such as no mattresses or household hazardous waste for now.

Because Carlton County does not have an ordinance requiring curbside pickup, many residents are in the habit of visiting the site at 1950 Minnesota Highway 210, near Black Bear Casino Resort.

“Our transfer station is used by lots of people in the county to self-haul their garbage,” Heather Cunningham, Carlton County zoning and environmental services administrator, said, noting that commercial garbage haulers also continue to use the site. “Despite the pandemic, garbage still needs to go to the landfill.”

Vehicles line up to enter the Carlton County transfer station Wednesday morning. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Vehicles line up to enter the Carlton County transfer station Wednesday morning. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

In Duluth, the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District continues to keep its main waste transfer station on 27th Avenue West open for commercial haulers. The city of Duluth doesn't allow for self-hauling and requires its addresses to be served by garbage haulers.

"We think it's important to stay on top of what is needed," WLSSD spokesperson Karen Anderson said, describing assessment meetings three times a week during the health crisis.

WLSSD is keen to gaps, Anderson said, and because private commercial outfits in the city of Duluth continue to take materials waste such as old TVs, furniture, construction waste and scrap metal, WLSSD felt confident in closing its Materials Recovery Center near the airport. The site is currently only accessible to construction contractors by appointment, Anderson said.

"We continue to operate our largest transfer station at 27th Avenue West," Anderson said. "It remains open as one of our critical services as we continue to make sure garbage can be managed in the region."

When it declared a state of emergency March 18 due to COVID-19 pandemic, the St. Louis County Board made sure to keep open its landfill in Virginia, as well as its transfer stations in places such as Aurora, Brookston and Hibbing.

“Head north and the reality is most of the people who live in the part of the county I represent are hauling their own garbage,” Commissioner Keith Nelson, of Virginia, said during the meeting.

Barnum's Straub had seven weeks’ worth of garbage and recycling packed into the back of her vehicle.

She was enjoying the fresh, crisp air as she and an adult son emptied materials into bins.

“I don’t let it get me down,” Straub said of COVID-19. “It’s a thing that’s going on and it will pass.”

Straub hasn’t used curbside garbage service in years, she said, enjoying the savings that come with self-hauling.

“You cut corners where you can,” she said.

Pay-as-you-go self-disposal fees are cheaper than regular monthly collection fees, Cunningham confirmed.

“We really want to keep that self-hauler window open,” Cunningham said. “Getting to spend $15 per month on garbage is really cost-effective for people.”

Peggy Douville of Wrenshall puts cardboard into a container at the Carlton County transfer station Wednesday morning. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Peggy Douville of Wrenshall puts cardboard into a container at the Carlton County transfer station Wednesday morning. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Cunningham talked about transfer stations in the age of a pandemic. In terms of social distancing, it’s a remarkably adaptable place. Stations are mostly open-air and users generally arrive by vehicle and discard materials in single file.

In Carlton County, the entry attendant is housed in a drive-through window now positioned behind a protective splash-guard barrier. Attendants are using protective gloves to handle bank cards and cash.

Cunningham said counties throughout the Northland are communicating and adopting similar measures.

Carlton County’s collection of household hazardous waste, such as old paint and dirty oil, is seasonal, beginning in May. It’s unlikely it will open on time, Cunningham said, although she’s preparing as if it will.

“We want to be ready when it is safe to open," Cunningham said, encouraging people to hold on to items until they can be properly disposed of. "We’re not going anywhere.”

Among new rules Carlton County has implemented is a residents-only rule. The attendant may check the identifications of users, Cunningham said, in order to enforce the measure.

Because the COVID-19 situation is continually changing, St. Louis County is encouraging residents to call the Environmental Service Hotline at 218-749-9703 before driving to any of the county's drop-off sites. The hotline message is updated daily to alert the public if any sites have to close.

For the Douville couple from Wrenshall, the outing to Carlton to drop off their garbage was enjoyable for more than just the sun and blue sky. It offered the chance encounter to talk about their days and habits.

“I haven’t been talking to anybody,” Peggy said. “It’s nice to talk to somebody else.”

Updated Carlton County Transfer Station rules:

  • Only open for Carlton County residents; users may be asked to present an ID.
  • No mattresses at this time.
  • Keeping reduced winter hours on Saturdays, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. until further notice.
  • Customers may not enter the cashier’s office.
  • Requesting payment by credit or debit card when possible.