Still in the Crosshairs

GARBAGE IS THE QUINTESSENTIAL LOCAL ISSUE. Landfills and material recovery facilities (MRF) are sited locally, not by a state or federal office, and their opponents usually live near the proposed location. While the laws and regulations covering those facilities are approved by state legislatures and state officials, the federal solid waste law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), only gives the national government a limited role in garbage and recycling.

The real action is at the state and local level, but Congress is hardly indifferent to trash issues. While no one seriously expects federal lawmakers to rewrite RCRA (the last real attempt occurred more than a decade ago), members of Congress continue to introduce legislation and to seek to influence how garbage and recyclables are managed. Bills introduced in 2005 can still be debated and voted on in 2006, and additional bills are likely to be introduced this year. Six areas dominated last year's agenda — interstate/international waste shipments, electronic waste recycling, landfill gas tax credits, the rail-yard solid waste facilities and a tax credit for recycling equipment.

Interstate/International Waste Shipments

A favorite target of federal legislators since 1990, interstate waste shipments were hotly debated last year. About 10 percent of the solid waste generated in the United States crosses a state line for disposal. Those shipments can be highly unpopular politically, largely because of concerns over increased truck traffic and a feeling on the part of residents that their locality is being “dumped on” by out-of-staters.

In 2005, several bills were introduced in Congress that would have given states the right to set limits on or ban shipments of interstate waste. Unlike previous Congresses, though, none of those bills received a hearing. While Congress did not address interstate shipments of solid waste, it focused on garbage that moves across international borders — specifically the 3.5 million tons of Canadian garbage that goes to Michigan landfills each year.

In late June 2005, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the International Solid Waste Importation and Management Act of 2005, HR 2491, a bill introduced by Rep. Paul Gillmor, R-Pa., that is intended to stop Canadian shipments. The bill would allow states to limit or ban the disposal of municipal solid waste generated in Canada until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issues procedures for implementing the solid waste provisions of the Transboundary Agreement on Hazardous (and Solid) Wastes.

The bill received little debate in committee and was approved unanimously. Committee approval was gained, in part, by guarantees from the bill's sponsors that the legislation would only apply to international shipments of solid waste and not to the interstate movement of waste. Plus, the bill would not stop shipments of Michigan hazardous waste to Canada.

However, much to the chagrin of the bill's sponsors, the full House has not voted on the legislation, possibly because of comments from Canadian trade officials who said it violated the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the Transboundary Agreement. The Transboundary Agreement was written to expedite the movement of materials and specified that both countries would know what type of materials are being shipped and where the material is going. The agreement does not allow states to erect barriers, and it was never intended to bar shipments. Nonetheless, the Michigan congressional delegation is expected to press for passage of the legislation this year.

Electronic Waste

The recycling of discarded electronics products was the subject of three bills introduced in Congress in 2005. Two of the bills would create a tax incentive for recycling e-wastes, while the third would create a national e-waste recycling grant program to be administered by EPA. On the House side, several representatives last year formed an informal caucus to promote e-waste legislation.

Even though the bills are unlikely to pass Congress this year, e-waste was the subject of two hearings in the House and one in the Senate last summer. The House heard about the different approaches to e-waste recovery in states, including California's advanced recycling fee, Maine's emphasis on manufacturer responsibility and Maryland's e-waste recycling grant program, which is paid for by a $5,000 yearly fee levied on manufacturers of certain electronics products sold in the state. House members also heard about how manufacturers and retailers encourage electronics product recovery. EPA also testified during the House hearings, saying that e-waste does not cause leachate problems in Subtitle D landfills.

However, members of the hazardous waste management industry claimed at the Senate hearing that electronics products could not be safely landfilled in a Subtitle D facility. In response, the Washington-based National Solid Waste Management Association (NSWMA) and the Silver Spring, Md.-based Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) sent a joint letter to the two committees saying that e-waste can be landfilled because no evidence shows that hazardous substances, including lead, leach out of landfilled electronics products in Subtitle D facilities. The letter emphasized, however, the importance of recycling electronics products.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released the results of an investigation into what steps the federal government should take to manage e-waste. The report described the California, Maine and Maryland laws but did not opine on which was the most effective, probably because the latter two states were still figuring out how to implement their laws when GAO was writing its report. The agency, however, called on EPA to determine the best way to finance e-waste recycling. A report on e-waste recycling from the U.S. Department of Commerce was several months overdue at press time.

The passage of e-waste legislation is unlikely in this Congress because the electronics industry, both manufacturers and retailers, is split over the best approach to financing e-waste recycling. Until they agree, Congress is unlikely to pass a law. However, if several more states pass legislation similar to California's or Maine's, the pressure will intensify on Congress to create a national approach.

Landfill Gas Credits

Last year, thanks in part to a joint NSWMA/SWANA effort, a tax incentive for the production of electricity from landfill methane gas was extended and expanded. The new energy law provides a 0.9 cents per kilowatt hour tax credit for electricity produced at a landfill gas facility placed into service by the end of 2007, and provides for a 10-year payout of the credit. An effort to see the tax credit expanded is underway this year.

Rail Transportation

Last year, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J, and Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., introduced S 1607 to eliminate the federal loophole that allows solid waste facilities located in rail yards to operate without complying with state or local laws and regulations. Similar legislation was introduced in the House. Neither bill had a hearing. However, as some railroad operators continue to operate rail-based transfer stations free of state and local health and environmental regulations, the issue likely will receive increased attention.

Recycling Tax Credit

Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., introduced legislation to create a modest tax credit for purchasers of equipment used to process materials for recycling. While the provision was added to the Senate energy bill, it was not part of the House bill and was deleted during conference committee. Jeffords has indicated he will be pursuing the issue in 2006.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington. E-mail the author at: [email protected].