solid waste synergy by Mike Breslin
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.