When the mailboat between Isle au Haut and Stonington docks on the mainland, it’s common to see passengers carting away some not-so-precious cargo. A recent island family reunion ended on the mainland with hugs, kisses, and a load of recyclables put into someone’s trunk.

It’s the old island rule of physics: anything that goes onto the island has to come off it somehow. Nowhere is this truer than with trash.

There used to be an easier, if less environmental, way to deal with trash on Isle au Haut, said island selectman Belvia MacDonald.

“Most everything got burned,” she said.

But stricter clean air regulations have made such a solution technically illegal, so island communities have worked to find better ways to deal with trash removal. That’s easier for some island towns than others.

Isle au Haut, for example, hires a contractor to collect everyday household trash and ferry it to the Stonington Transfer Station. But the contractor doesn’t handle larger items like refrigerators; that’s up to individual families to arrange transportation off the island and pickup on the mainland. Such an arrangement means that while someone might be waiting to pick up a loved one at the ferry dock, someone else might be waiting to pick up a broken appliance.

Out of necessity, some island communities are more aggressive about recycling than communities on the mainland.

“We did it before Stonington did,” MacDonald said.

And sometimes “re-use” is a better buzzword than “recycle.” For instance, both Isle au Haut and the Cranberry Isles crush glass to be used as fill. Dan Lief, chairman of the board of selectmen for the Cranberries, said that sometimes a lack of mainland recycling options has held the Cranberries back from recycling more.

“A small town can’t really be meaningful recyclers if the region isn’t,” Lief said.

Another way to cut back on trash is to change the definition of what gets thrown away. Recently, residents of the Cranberries received black plastic composting bins. While the bins look eerily like giant versions of Darth Vader’s helmet, they’ve helped encourage island residents to make fertilizer out of food refuse rather than just throw the organic material away.

“We’ve done a good job of getting the food volumes out of the [garbage] stream,” Lief said.

Perhaps the most effective form of trash disposal is not importing the trash to begin with. But that’s been difficult, said Lief, because of increased packaging in imported materials and increased mail-order shopping by islanders.

Cranberry residents have tried to curb their trash intake, said Lief, by asking for more biodegradable packaging. Chicken bought at the local supermarket is packed in paper instead of plastic, for example. And both Islesford and Little Cranberry have invested in trash compactors to cut down on the amount of trash barge trips needed.

But no amount of innovation will change the realities of infrequent ferry schedules on more remote islands like Mantinicus, said Eva Murray, recycling and solid waste coordinator for that island.

“An island with three ferries a day like Vinalhaven has a completely different set of options,” said Murray.

And Mantinicus’s refuse efforts are further hampered by its status as a plantation, not an organized town. That means Mantinicus’s government officially doesn’t own any land for an island transfer station. But the island has started a very successful recycling program through perseverance, volunteerism, and some donated space from the island’s church. The program has already resulted in the recycling of some 10 tons of waste.

For mainlanders a recycling trip might take hours, but for Mantinicus volunteers it can take a day and a half to two days and a rented truck.

“It’s not a small job,” Murray said.