Politics of Garbage, The

During this year's election, at least one politician will stake his or her political future on garbage. I'll bet that politician is campaigning against a proposed landfill or against out-of-state trash going to an in-state disposal facility.

Most politicians take the path of least resistance. They know that voters are more likely to favor a candidate who loudly says "no" to garbage than a candidate who says, "we need disposal facilities because we all make garbage."

Sometimes the politics of garbage gets particularly surreal. Earlier this year, several Virginia politicians charged that contributions made by New York Gov. George Pataki's Political Action Committee to candidates for the Virginia state legislature were an attempt to "buy some legislators."

Allegedly, Gov. Pataki was trying to influence the battle over shipping New York garbage to Virginia disposal sites. During the past few years, Virginia politicians have had a field day defending the Old Dominion against this latest Yankee onslaught. And why shouldn't they? It's easier to oppose Yankee trash than to fix Virginia's crowded roads.

Yet the same politicians who orate against New York City trash remain silent about Virginia's shipments of hazardous and nuclear waste to disposal facilities in other states. The cat must have their tongue.

Garbage makes for great political theater. The photo opportunities protesting a new landfill are irresistible and so much easier than constructive solutions to disposal problems.

And it doesn't matter that states don't literally dump on each other. Delaware, whose solid waste authority ships garbage to a Pennsylvania incinerator, is the only state that actually ships garbage to another state. True, many local governments, including cities and counties, ship their trash to facilities located in other cities or counties. They simply are looking for the most economical disposal option for their citizens. They are acting responsibly unlike the politicians who only can say "no."

Even the vice president and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., have gotten silly over garbage. Two years ago, Vice President Gore (who never claimed he invented garbage) declared that "Americans ... increasingly are concerned about the impacts that more landfills and waste hauling will have on their communities in the future." At the same time, EPA claimed that "no one wants to live near a landfill." With friends like that, who needs enemies?

In fact, many communities willingly accept landfills. They profit from host-community fees. Also, a closed landfill can become a park or golf course. Can the 800,000 yearly visitors who enjoy Mt. Trashmore, a closed landfill in Virginia Beach, Va., be wrong?

I don't expect politicians to suddenly decide not to campaign against landfills. But I would ask those politicians to also provide alternatives to landfills. And, if they argue in favor of recycling and source reduction, I hope they are honest enough to show their support for energy conservation by taking mass transit to all their campaign rallies.