March 1, 2002

7 Min Read
In and Out

Kim A. O'Connell

If one thing truly unites these United States, it is trash. Every day, waste moves back and forth across state lines, weaving a complex tapestry of interactions across the country. The movement and disposal of interstate waste has been a continually contentious issue in both the courts and Congress, as the amount of trash generated in the nation steadily increases and as older landfills close.

Yet for all the controversy, it is interesting to note that, in 2000, less than 8 percent of all the waste generated in the country was exported to another state for disposal, and only 9 percent of waste was imported. Nevertheless, although these numbers seem small, they represent a greater amount of waste than ever before.

According to a report released in February by the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), Washington, D.C., the amount of municipal solid waste (MSW) exported and imported by states has nearly tripled in the past 11 years. In 2000, 31.1 million tons of waste were exported, representing a 150 percent increase since 1989. Imports have risen to more than 32.1 million tons, nearly a 200 percent increase.

The report also measures waste interactions — that is, the movement of MSW between two states or countries as an import or export. In 2000, more than 135 waste interactions occurred. Of these, 113, or 84 percent, were between neighboring states.

A remarkable increase also has occurred in the number of states that exported waste in 1989 vs. those that do so today. In 1989, only 13 states and the District of Columbia exported trash. In 2000, that number had grown to 47 states, plus the District. Similarly, in 1989, only 14 states imported waste; in 2000, 45 states were importing.

Breaking it Down

So which states are importing and exporting the most? The NSWMA report has few surprises. As in the past, the nation's greatest exporters are located primarily in the Northeast and Midwest. Eight states exported more than 1 million tons in 2000: California, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Ohio.

As heavy importers like Virginia and Pennsylvania know, the state exporting the largest volume of MSW in 2000 was New York, with 6.8 million tons. Neighboring New Jersey was in second place with 4.2 million tons, according to NSWMA. With New York City's Fresh Kills Landfill now officially closed (although it is still accepting debris from Ground Zero), the state's position as the greatest exporter is probably secure.

Similarly unsurprising is Pennsylvania's status as the nation's largest importer. In 2000, the Keystone State disposed of 12.2 million tons of out-of-state waste. Virginia imported 3.9 million tons, with Michigan following closely behind with 2.8 million tons. The NSWMA report notes that Pennsylvania's import tonnage was nearly as high as the amount of waste it generated itself, or 85.6 percent.

Waste Age's recent survey of the states' solid waste management plans also revealed some import and export information — although the type and extent of information reported was widely inconsistent from state to state. For example, of the 1.6 million tons of waste that Indiana reported that it imported in 2000, the state noted that the majority came from the Chicago area. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) also is alive and well: Texas imported about 7,200 tons of waste from Mexico in 2000, and Michigan imported 4.2 million cubic yards of waste from Canada.

The state of Georgia experienced explosive growth in the amount of waste it imported in fiscal year 1999, because of its extensive landfill capacity and low tipping fees. That year, the state reported that more than 450,000 tons of waste were imported, a 234 percent increase over the previous year.

With so much MSW crossing state lines in the past year, interstate movement of waste and flow control have continued to be hot-button topics in Congress and in the nation's courts.

In Congress and Court

Importing more waste than any other state, Pennsylvania fittingly produced one of the most vocal proponents for restricting interstate movement of waste in 2001. Last year, Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa., introduced an interstate waste bill (H.R. 1213) that would allow states to limit the amount of waste they import to 1993 levels and collect a $2 per ton surcharge on out-of-state waste. For the first time, flow control language was not included in the waste legislation, but the subject did come up in a debate before Congress.

Last August, at a hearing before the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials, David Hess, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, argued in favor of import limits and flow control. “Ironically, the lack of federal legislation also has hampered other states, like New Jersey, who want to keep waste in their state but can't because they can't control where their waste goes for disposal,” Hess testified.

Speaking for the waste industry, NSWMA Executive Vice President Bruce Parker countered by praising the industry's innovations in waste management technologies and practices, resulting in more environmentally sound facilities. “Most states import and export garbage, and none are harmed in the process,” Parker testified. “Regional facilities serving communities in watersheds were constructed … in anticipation of receiving a sufficient volume of waste, both from within and outside the host state.”

Since September 11th changed Congressional priorities, however, no action has been taken on the legislation.

As for legal action, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to review an appeals court decision that allowed a public-sector exception to its 1994 ruling that flow control is unconstitutional. In December, NSWMA filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief suggesting the Supreme Court hear the case. The Supreme Court declined, so the case is awaiting a decision by the district court, expected in late 2002 or early 2003.

Meantime, two upstate New York counties are re-establishing flow control policies. As they do so, New York, other states and the waste industry will continue to argue over that critical 8 percent of waste being exported for disposal.

Kim A. O'Connell is a contributing editor based in Arlington, Va.

The Interstate Waste Index

In February 2002, the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, D.C., released a report, “Interstate Movement of Solid Waste,” summarizing the latest findings on interstate waste. The report was compiled by the Congressional Research Service, Washington, D.C., and authored by Edward W. Repa, director of environmental programs for the NSWMA. Here are the highlights:

  • Number of states exporting more than 1 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW): 8 (CA, IL, MD, MO, NJ, NY, NC and OH)

  • States that exported between 0.75 million tons and 1 million tons: 3 (IN, MA and WA, as well as DC)

  • States with exports of 0.75 million tons, but greater than 0.1 million tons: 13 (CT, FL, GA, IA, LA, MN, PA, RI, TN, TX, VA, WV and WI)

  • States that exported less than 100,000 tons: 23 (AL, AK, AZ, AR, CO, DE, ID, KS, KY, ME, MI, MS, MT, NE, NH, ND, OK, OR, SC, SD, UT, VT and WY)

  • States that did not export MSW for disposal: 3 (HI, NV and NM)

  • Percentage of DC's waste that is exported: 89

  • Number of states that imported more than 1 million tons of MSW: 8 (IL, IN, MI, OH, OR, PA, VA and WI)

  • States that imported less than 1 million tons, but greater than 0.1 million tons: 20 (AL, AZ, CT, GA, IA, KS, KY, ME, MS, MO, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, SC, TN, WA and WV)

  • Number of states that imported less than 100,000 tons of MSW: 17 (AR, CA, CO, FL, ID, LA, MD, MA, MN, MT, NC, ND, OK, SD, TX, UT and WY)

  • States that did not import MSW for disposal: 5 (AK, DE, HI, RI and VT, as well as the DC)

  • States with net imports greater than 1 million tons: 4 (PA, VA, MI and OR)

  • States that had net imports greater than 500,000 tons, but less than 1 million tons: 6 (IN, KY, Nevada, Ohio, SC and WI)

  • Number of states that had net exports greater than 1 million tons: 7 (CA, IL, MD, MO, NY, NJ and NC, as well as Ontario, Canada)

  • Net tonnage of waste exported by NY: 6.268 million

  • States that had net exports greater than 500,000 tons, but less than 1 million tons: 3 (MA, MN, WA and DC)

  • The entire report can be found at under “Quick Takes.” — Kim A. O'Connell

Stay in the Know - Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Join a network of more than 90,000 waste and recycling industry professionals. Get the latest news and insights straight to your inbox. Free.

You May Also Like