Taking the Cake

SOME PEOPLE IN MICHIGAN AND CANADA are unhappy about what's crossing the border. Canadians are sending Michigan their solid waste, and the United States is sending Canada its fruitcakes. It sounds like a fair exchange to me.

However, during the holiday season, the Air Canada Transport Security Authority banned fruitcakes from airplane carry-on luggage because the dense treats are difficult to identify on X-ray scanners that inspect travellers' bags. Although flyers were not necessarily suspected of packing contraband in the cakes, the authority said it imposed the rule to avoid unnecessary security alerts and subsequent delays.

If this topic doesn't seem heavy enough, some U.S. legislators are trying to prevent approximately 23,750 tons per week of Canadian trash from crossing the border into Michigan.

When Toronto closed its Keele Valley landfill in December 2002, Michigan residents began seeing about 180 trucks per day traversing their byways to get to state disposal sites. They decried the environmental effects, traffic, pollution and potential security risks. Then local officials, promoting a “not in my backyard” mantra, asked Congress to enforce an agreement that would require Canada to notify the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) each time it exports waste (and vice versa), giving the EPA authority to accept or reject the waste. [See page 6]

I can understand the concerns about security. But when it comes to trash — not fruitcakes — it appears the restrictions are in bad taste.

What the politicians often fail to recognize is how the United States benefits from exchanging waste with its neighbor. While Michigan receives Canada's municipal solid waste, Americans send hazardous waste to the north. In fact, we ship about twice the amount of hazwaste that Canada ships to the United States. So if the flow of waste is stopped on either side, there could be dire disposal consequences, according to the EPA.

In looking at just American-generated e-waste, 500 million computers are expected to become obsolete by 2007. The United States lacks e-waste recovery and recycling facilities, but Canada has smelters capable of managing the materials. So restricting border crossings without developing a local infrastructure to recycle our own e-waste could mean more waste filling up our domestic landfills.

At first glance, disposing of waste in areas besides where it is generated appears to be unpleasant. However, the majority of the waste being traded meets both countries' environmental regulations. Moreover, the United States and Canada are providing each other with safe, affordable disposal destinations that make economic sense.

Like grandmother's fruitcake, the situation in Michigan may at first be unappetizing. But once you delve in, it really is quite palatable.

The author is the editor of Waste Age