Whose Capacity?

At the recent Congressional hearing on interstate waste, the directors of several state environmental protection agencies bemoaned their inability to manage their disposal capacity. All their efforts to manage waste went for naught, they argued, because the amounts of trash coming into their states were unpredictable.

As I listened to them, I realized they were talking about their state's disposal capacity as if their state actually owned the disposal facilities and as if they could, indeed, plan for solid waste just as easily as they could plan the state economy.

But then, I thought, unless a state agency actually owns a disposal facility, the “state” itself doesn't have any capacity. Private companies that risked their investors' money and local governments that risked taxpayer dollars and built disposal facilities have disposal capacity. State officials can accurately say that their agency has permitted “x” amount of disposal capacity at facilities. But they can't truly say that the “state” itself has that capacity.

For that matter, states don't export or import waste. Garbage collectors — whether they are local governments or private sector haulers — ship their trash to disposal sites. Those facilities may be located in the same or different states than where the trash is generated. The only instance in which a state could export waste would be if a state waste agency signed a contract to send waste collected in that state to a disposal facility located in another state. That has happened at least once, but not currently. For the same reason, unless the state government owns the disposal facility, then the state is not in the import business.

And why do we think that state governments can plan for solid waste management any better than they can plan their economy? If we learned anything in the past two decades, we learned that planned economies are failed economies. I've never seen any evidence that solid waste can be planned any more efficiently than an economy. State waste planning efforts are limited, in part, by the reality that state lines are artificial barriers for both markets and wastesheds.

In fact, we know that attempts to limit disposal capacity cause more problems than they cure. For the past 10 years, Massachusetts had a moratorium on new disposal capacity. As a result, towns and private haulers in the Bay State were forced to ship more and more garbage to disposal facilities located in other states. Massachusetts residents got the “benefit” of higher disposal costs. Only last year did the legislature concede defeat and lift the moratorium. Once again, the power of free markets prevailed over state planning.

We should not eliminate state plans. We need strong public health and environmental solid waste regulations. We need vigorous enforcement of those laws and regulations. The plans establish state solid waste management policy. But we need to recognize the limits of state planning and the strengths of a free market, and we need to take more advantage of those strengths.