U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania is eager for his home state’s landfills to be greener, cleaner and leaner by shedding tons of out-of-state garbage. But the diet the Democrat devised earlier this month via federal legislation doesn’t pass the refuse industry’s sniff test.
If it becomes law, the Trash Reduction and Sensible Handling (TRASH) Act, S.1953, would amend the Solid Waste Disposal Act to restrict interstate waste imports and impose higher fees on out-of state waste.
“Under this legislation, Pennsylvania can take common-sense steps to restrict the ability of other states to overwhelm communities with tons of trash,” explained John Rizzo, Casey’s communications manager, in an e-mail response to questions from Waste360. It “is about empowering all states to have more control over the amount of out-of-state trash coming into their communities.”
When introducing his bill on Aug. 5, Casey said he didn’t want Pennsylvania to be a “dumping ground” for out-of-state rubbish. The state consistently ranks among the country’s top trash importers, along with Virginia, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois, according to numbers from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Two waste-related trade organizations—the Washington, D.C.-based National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA), and the Silver Spring, Md.-based Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), are opposed to interstate restrictions on trash haulers. Both want to put the kibosh on Casey’s bill.
Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy at NWRA, notes that people upset by the interstate transport of waste are rarely as concerned about the similar movement of recyclables, which far outpace municipal solid waste in volume and weight.
In a nutshell, the bill would allow states to make two major changes by altering their solid waste management plans. One, states or municipalities with more stringent recycling, composting or waste reduction standards could demand that imported trash comply with that higher bar. And two, states could collect a community benefit fee for receiving out-of-state waste. The fee would benefit municipalities tolerating landfills or other trash facilities.
“Although well-intentioned, Casey’s legislation would be disruptive,” says David Biderman, SWANA executive director and CEO. “The general principle is that local governments want to have a variety of disposal options so waste can be handled in a cost-effective and environmentally protected manner. Sometimes those disposal options are across the border.”
Both Biderman and Miller point out that it’s already a common practice for landfill operators to voluntarily pay what are called host benefit fees to municipalities.
“I’m not sure a federal law mandating fees is necessary or appropriate,” Biderman says, adding that the amount paid in voluntary fees is usually tied to the tons of garbage dumped.
A Supreme Court decision in the 1970s that centered on a trash dispute between Pennsylvania and New Jersey made it clear that Congress, not states, is the authority on interstate transportation of waste due to the commerce clause. Periodically, bills have been introduced and reached the hearing stage, but no federal law has passed.
The higher fees on exported trash proposed in Casey’s bill are clearly an attempt to restrict interstate commerce because they present a financial barrier, Miller says.
“Waste gets generated in cities that are on or near to state boundaries,” he continues, listing New York City, Kansas City, St. Louis and Philadelphia as examples. “Wastesheds don’t recognize state lines because they’re artificial boundaries. They’re like markets, which are a function of distance and cost.”
Biderman seconds that thought.
He emphasizes that the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), passed in 1976, delegates authority on disposal of solid waste to state and local authorities because they are closest to the situation.
“What we talk about all of the time is that waste disposal is based on the local economy, politics and geography,” Biderman says. “What works in Seattle is different from what might work in New York City or Dallas.”
A federal law mandating that one community meet another state’s recycling goals is unreasonable, Biderman says, adding that there is no uniform measure of what is diverted before trash enters a landfill.
Neither Biderman nor Miller is too surprised that the latest bill on restricting interstate trash originated in Pennsylvania.
Even though tons of out-of-state rubbish accepted by Pennsylvania dipped from 9.2 million in 2006 to 6.4 million in 2013, it’s still at the apex of the import heap. In 2014, refuse traveled from 21 states, Puerto Rico and the nation’s capital, according to state DEP calculations. The bulk of that was from New Jersey (3.5 million tons), New York (2.7 million tons), Maryland (593,230 tons), West Virginia (170,903 tons) and the District of Columbia (170,903 tons).
Casey is the son of the late and former Pennsylvania governor, Robert Casey Sr., who also had a keen interest in trash topics. The senator grew up in Scranton, an industrial city in northeastern Pennsylvania near the Keystone Sanitary Landfill. Neighbors have mounted strong opposition to the privately owned landfill’s expansion proposal, claiming it wouldn’t need to grow if its owners would stop accepting outside garbage.
As of yet, Casey’s bill has no co-sponsors or companion legislation in the House of Representatives. It was sent to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee just days before senators left town for their August recess.
When they return to the U.S. Capitol after Labor Day, they will be slammed with contentious issues such as voting on the Iran nuclear deal and considering legislation to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, avoid a government shutdown, fund highway infrastructure, boost cybersecurity and scale back tough criminal sentencing laws.
Trash won’t likely have that same urgency.
Still, Casey is prepared to dig in to find bipartisan backing.
“Senator Casey understands that getting this legislation passed will be a long-term effort,” Rizzo says. He "will work to build support among his colleagues.”