MAY 2011

Canada-Michigan solid waste synergy Click to Enlarge
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According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most recent estimates, Canada exports approximately 4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) to the United States each year while the United States exports roughly 12,000 tons a year, primarily from Maine to New Brunswick.

“Currently, MSW is not counted and reported to EPA as it crosses the border,” said Richard Yost, press officer at the EPA. “When MSW is exported from Canada into the United Sates it is still considered non-hazardous. EPA does not regulate the transportation of non-hazardous waste,” he added.

By volume, MSW is Canada’s largest export and most all of it goes to United States landfills for the simple reason it is a whole lot cheaper. That explains why many large landfills are situated just across the border from Canada’s major population centers. 

Most volume comes from densely populated southern Ontario and is trucked across the border to nearby Michigan. In 2009, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality reported that the state imported 8,814,076 cu. yds. of Canadian municipal and commercial waste into its landfills, or about 19 percent of the state’s total landfill volume.

But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Many see it as a potentially positive growth industry for Michigan and other states.

“I believe that recycling and material flows, are a basic building block in the reconstruction of the American economy,” says Pierre Bélanger, associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. There he teaches graduate courses on landscape, infrastructure and urbanism in the interrelated fields of planning, design and engineering.

Before Harvard, Bélanger was co-director of the Centre for Landscape Research at the University of Toronto. He had also worked as a project manager for Canada’s largest reforestation and bioengineering contractor. Bélanger is a registered landscape architect and urban planner, certified in Canada as a surface miner and has been widely published on urban infrastructure and issues related to waste ecologies.

Unlike most academics, Bélanger has industry experience and has examined urban waste generation flows from both sides of the border.

Even compared to other states, tipping fees in Michigan are extremely low. Typical fees for landfill contracts in Michigan are on the order of $15 dollars per ton, not including transportation costs. Weigh that with recently published rates from the City of London, Ontario, located approximately 100 miles north of the border – residential waste from outside London’s service area is charged at Can$150 dollars per metric ton.

“The discrepancies in prices between dumping in Ontario and Michigan have to do with the environmental regulations which are so considerable on the Canadian side that it makes the costs of land filling extremely prohibitive,” Bélanger explained. “It’s very difficult to get a landfill permitted in Canada. The geology is completely different than in Michigan, therefore infrastructure costs for building landfills in Canada are much higher.”

According to Bélanger, Michigan has a thick, practically impervious layer of Devonian clay that covers almost the entire state, which is a major advantage for landfill ecology when compared with fractured bedrock in southern Ontario and eastern states.

“Issues surrounding the contamination of groundwater in Canada are much more considerable as well. The period of post-landfill operations and maintenance are completely different. For example, in Michigan you have to maintain a landfill for a few decades, whereas in Canada they have to be managed in perpetuity. You can imagine what the differences in costs for landfill operations are. It just makes more sense to drive a few hundred kilometers.”

Despite the common sense of the economics, cross-border waste flow is a political hot potato on both sides of the border, driven largely by the environmental movement and reactionary politicians.

At the same time, cities and states across North America are faced with ever higher landfill expenses and regulatory hurdles to establish new sites.

The City of Toronto, for example, ended its waste disposal contract with the Carlton Farms Landfill in Michigan operated by Republic Services at the end of 2010. For decades, Toronto had been shipping roughly one million tons per year to landfills in Michigan.

“Toronto was being criticized by its own residents and by the United States,” said Bélanger. “There was a lot of discussion in Michigan in terms of its own environment and economy and whether or not the reliance on import of solid waste from Canada is really a legitimate source of revenue. I think on a political level there is decreased support for this flow on both sides of the border, but from a landfill operator and industrial perspective, it makes almost perfect sense.”

As of January 1, all of Toronto’s waste requiring landfill disposal goes to their city-owned Green Lane Landfill southwest of the City of London, approximately 125 miles from downtown Toronto. The 320 acre landfill is expected to ingest approximately 800,000 tons during 2011. If Toronto can meet its ambitious 70 percent recycling recovery rate, the site’s life expectancy is projected to 2033. In 2009, Toronto diverted 44 percent of residential waste from landfill, eliminating 363,891 tons.

Mark Watson, area president for Republic Services in Michigan, indicated that Toronto’s halt in exports affected Carleton Farms Landfill. “Private industrial-commercial-institutional waste haulers continue to take advantage of Michigan’s competitive landfill assets. Carleton Farms has taken the appropriate actions to reduce costs consistent with the loss of volume including a one-third work force reduction at the site.

Carleton Farms produces enough electricity for a city of 30,000 people. The loss of municipal waste will have a negative impact on gas production. Further impact from the loss of the Toronto contract resulted in a reduction of local, county, and state revenues from host fees and taxes totaling upwards of $1 million with Sumpter Township also initiating layoffs. These were good, high paying Michigan jobs. The State of Michigan is trying to raise fees on all waste disposals, including Michigan trash, due to their loss of revenue from out of state waste.”

Most enlightened jurisdictions in the United States and Canada have implemented various recovery and recycling programs. Besides reducing volume and extending landfill life, these programs create revenue from recycled commodities to help offset municipal disposal costs. Some cities in Canada are among the most progressive recyclers in the world.

Nevertheless, even with decreasing volume and with the number of North American landfills shrinking tremendously over the past 20 years, and despite the best conservation and recycling programs, landfills will most likely be needed forever.

According to EPA, the number of landfills in the United States shrunk from 7,924 in 1988 to 1,908 in 2009. It seems logical that if landfills must exist, even though in smaller numbers, ideally they should be centrally located near dense population centers in areas that are best geologically-suited to the purpose.

“This lends tremendous possibilities toward an understanding how the state of Michigan could actually reposition itself and provide itself with a new image of innovation related to waste ecology and the recycling of material flows. Waste management corporations should be sponsoring forward-looking visions,” Bélanger suggested.

He may have a valid point when looking at Michigan’s current economic situation. Unemployment in January was 10.7 percent, among the highest states in the country and well above the national average of 9 percent. In late March, Governor Rick Snyder announced that Michigan would become the first state to cut unemployment benefits from 26 to 20 weeks to help reduce the tax burden on businesses.

Compounding that, Michigan was the biggest loser in the 2010 census, a 0.6 percent loss in population over 10 years. Puerto Rico, a United States territory, was the only other population drop. All other territories and states had population growth and overall national population growth was 9.7 percent over 10 years.

The loss of automotive related industry and other manufacturing from Michigan is cited as the primary cause for the decline. Detroit’s population dropped 25 percent over the past 10 years to its lowest level in 100 years.

Obviously, Michigan needs economic stimulation in the form of new industries that can support good paying jobs. “It’s a matter of waste ecology and waste economics. What is beginning to alter the scene is an understanding that waste itself is both a commodity and a resource. While that may sound simple and basic, it’s a tremendous change from what we’ve been doing for the past hundred years,” said Bélanger.

What Bélanger suggests as a potential solution to Michigan’s economic woes and Canada’s demand for cost-efficient waste ecology is logical when seen objectively without international posturing.

Regardless of borders, Michigan sits at the epicenter Great Lakes Basin with a regional population of nearly 40 million and growing. The EPA describes the region as, “Home to more than one-tenth of the population of the United States and one-quarter of the population of Canada. Some of the world’s largest concentrations of industrial capacity are located in the region. Nearly 25 percent of the total Canadian agricultural production and 7 percent of American production are located in the basin.”

Besides having an excellent highway and rail system, Michigan also has numerous commodity port facilities on Lakes Michigan, Huron, Superior and Erie. The better transportation economies of shipping large volumes by water has the added advantage of keeping trash trucks off the road, relieving congestion and curbing emissions.

“Movement and transaction of wastes happen on a regional level because there are economic efficiencies. Within the great lakes region, Michigan is right across the border and willing to provide a service for Canadian cities. It’s regional, whether or not its trans-boundary,” said Bélanger.

Because of the recession and loss of population, Michigan saw a decrease in total landfill volume from 2008 to 2009 of approximately 16 percent. Yet, imported waste from Ontario and the United States, which represent 27 percent of all solid waste disposed of in Michigan landfills, fell only 3 percent during the same period. Toronto ceasing shipments to Michigan will have a significant impact in 2011.

“Michigan currently has ample landfill space to service overflow volumes from Ontario while meeting local waste shed demands,” pointed out Mark Watson at Republic. “On the political side, some politicians are trying to create a negative impression for out of state waste. Michigan spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a few years ago and proved that the Canadian waste had less recyclables in it and was better suited for landfill disposal than in-state waste. Southeast Michigan landfills are in an ideal location for environmentally safe and secure long term disposal. The potential does exist to develop additional infrastructure to process recycling and organic material from Ontario proving a turnkey waste management solution while creating additional jobs for Michiganders.”

Michigan has the skilled workforce, technology, geology and the open space to become a leader in waste management. It is sparsely populated with an average of only 175 people per square mile compared to the national average of 80. While forestry and farming are important industries, much of the forested land has not proved fruitful for other types of agriculture. Farming waste could prove bountiful.

“I do hope that in the future we see waste management companies taking the lead in states like Michigan, since they stand to gain the most and influence a large employment sector,” Bélanger concluded.

People must get past political and environmental squabbles of who is dumping garbage on whom and realize that the United States/Canadian border is meaningless in terms of regional waste transactions. Waste is a commodity under NAFTA and can flow freely between the two countries. If it makes economic and environmental sense, everyone benefits.