April 2006

Flow of trash into Michigan landfills persists
Michigan’s original ban on imports was ruled unconstitutional; another is in progress

Importing garbage continues to be a controversial issue and the situation in the State of Michigan sheds light on a problem that covers solid waste imported from other states and from Canada.

According to a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality report entitled Report of Solid Waste Landfilled in Michigan, trash imports into the state increased by 2 percent in 2005.

In 2005 63,927,564 cubic yards of solid waste was deposited in various landfill sites. Of this total, 10.3 percent was sent from other states and another 18.1 percent was shipped from the Canadian province of Ontario – the majority from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

While imports from other states rose from 7.2 percent in 1996 to their current level, it took 5 years for imports from Canada to rise from 6.3 percent (1996) to account for 9.8 percent (2001) of the total. From 2002 to 2005, imports increased dramatically to account for an additional 8.8 percent of the total.

“It is discouraging to see the amount of waste being brought into Michigan from outside of our borders continue to increase,” said DEQ director Steven E. Chester in a press release. “This fact must call attention to the need for real action on solid waste issues in the Legislature.”

While garbage hauling trucks from other states enter Michigan via interstates, the majority of imports from Canada cross over via the Port Huron Bridge, one of two major bridges linking the two nations. But wherever the trucks originate from, state residents are concerned with the increasing number of trucks that are spilling loads on their way to landfills and their return trips cause wear and tear on the road network.

According to the DEQ, the state’s existing landfills will reach their maximum capacity in 17 years. While some landfills have room for expansion, new landfills would be needed to meet future demands based on current levels. The state’s moratorium on the creation of new landfills expired on February 1, but thus far no company has submitted an application to expand or create a new landfill.

“It certainly seems like a matter of time before we do receive them,” said Robert McCann, the press secretary for the DEQ.

The transportation and importation of garbage, while it occurs in individual states and Canadian provinces, is a federal matter in both nations and local governments are powerless to prevent import of waste.

The Michigan State House had previously passed a resolution to ban solid waste imports into the state, but that was ruled unconstitutional because the states do not have any authority to limit the provisions of federal commerce clause.

In response, state legislators passed legislation on March 1 that would ban imports of waste from Canada and other states after 60 days should federal legislators give states’ the authority to control the movement of this commodity. The governor has just signed the bill.

“The problem is that we have no sense from the federal government that they are willing to give us the authority to do that,” said McCann. “The problem is that a lot of states export a good part of their waste; so they certainly do not want to let other states like Michigan stop them from doing that.”

Currently the state charges a 21 cent tipping fee per ton of waste that is deposited in landfill, a fee that is recognized by other jurisdictions as being extremely inexpensive and the lowest in the area.

“That is the main reason why our neighboring states, and especially Canada, are bringing their trash here,” said McCann.

Democratic legislators have put forward a proposal, supported by the governor and DEQ, to increase the tipping fee to $7.50 per ton, a fee to be applied even to Michigan municipalities. The funds raised from the increase would be used to establish local recycling programs.

Tipping fees in other states are considerably higher. Wisconsin and Ohio charge around $4 and Pennsylvania $7.25. By raising the fee, the DEQ anticipates that imports will decline rapidly.

“A recent report from Wisconsin, which bumped up their tipping fee by $3 in 2001, shows that waste imports dropped by 17 percent and noted that an increase to $7 which they are considering, would provide a 50 percent reduction in disposal,” said McCann. “We think that Michigan would see similar numbers or more because Michigan has historically been a greater importer of waste than Wisconsin had been. That would extend our landfills’ life.”

The Republican majority has not scheduled any hearings for the proposed tipping fee increase. It also appears that while both parties support the concept of better recycling programs, there has been no agreement on funding and nothing has been implemented on a statewide level.

“The DEQ has taken part in a number of town hall meetings around the state regarding this issue, said McCann. “It’s something the public is definitely concerned about.”

On average, every Michigan household produces 1.17 tons of waste annually. Should the tipping fee increase be given the green light, the cost per household would be $8.82.

“We are not looking at a lot of money here,” said McCann. “It is fairly minimal and what they are going to be getting back is a recycling program that is ultimately going to cut down the amount of waste they are generating.”

Michigan residents, especially those residing adjacent to the landfills accepting Canadian and out-of-state trash are concerned about the effects of the trash upon the environment.

While some industrial/commercial waste from Ontario’s Niagara Valley is sent to the State of New York, the bulk of Ontario garbage being shipped into the United States goes to Michigan. The largest source of garbage is the collective amount that private waste management companies pick up from the southern Ontario region. In terms of trash collected by municipalities, the main exporters are from the GTA – City of Toronto and the regions of York, Peel and Durham.

However, the traffic is not one-way. Hazardous waste from the United States is shipped to Ontario’s Clean Harbours facility in Sarnia, which has a landfill and an incinerator. Clean Harbour, according to Ontario’s ministry of the environment, receives material from Michigan.

John Steele, a spokesman for the ministry, noted that Ontario has many municipal and private landfill sites and that municipal landfills exist primarily for individual cities and towns. He added that the province has sufficient landfill space.

Reducing the amount of landfilled waste is a key policy for the ministry and the basis for the 3R program – reduce, re-use and recycle. This includes a blue box program throughout the province and a green bin program to collect organic materials that has been implemented in Toronto, the York Region and selected areas.

Currently, the provincial target for recycling is 50 percent. The province has proposed a target rate of 60 percent by 2008, but this has not been formalized.

Toronto began exporting garbage, solid waste, wastewater and bio-solids to Michigan’s Carlton Farms landfill in 1998/1999.

“We did that in anticipation of the closure of our Keele Valley landfill and we attempted to extend its life by shipping materials to Michigan,” said Geoff Rathbone, Toronto’s director of solid waste planning. “When the landfill closed in December 2002, all of our waste then went to Michigan and that is when Michigan began to push back.”

In 2003, Toronto sent 1,218,000 tons (140 trucks per day); it decreased to 1,075,000 tons in 2004 and further decreased in 2005 to 940,000 tons (95 trucks per day).

“You can see with our truck count numbers dropping from 140 to 95 in three years that it’s an impressive reduction,” said Rathbone.

“We’re now at 40 percent overall for 2005 and for our single-family homes, we’re at 53 percent,” said Rathbone. “We’re trying to get to 60 percent through source separated-based diversion. Michigan is relatively low cost disposal, but the good thing is that our recycling programs are less expensive than going to Michigan.”

Including the tipping fees, it costs Toronto $58 (CAN) to ship a ton of garbage to Michigan and a further $60 per ton to collect the waste. While Toronto is not looking for a new landfill in Ontario, it has just started the process for an environmental assessment for it waste collection, with the key goal of diverting as much waste from the landfill as possible.

The city anticipates it will have about 400,000 tons of waste annually that it will be unable to recycle, re-use or compost.

According to Mike Birret, the Region of York’s manager of program development and planning for the Waste Management Branch, the Region produces about 314,000 tons of material annually, in which about 136,000 tons is shipped to Carlton Farms and Onyx landfills. Waste is also shipped to the Green Lane landfill in South Wold, Ontario.

Prior to the closing of Keele Valley, York did not ship waste to the United States.

“There is no other alternative right now,” said Birett. “We have no landfill in our jurisdiction and we haven’t been successful in getting approval for another.”

It currently costs York about $65 per ton to transport waste to Michigan.


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