Banning Massachusetts

"Don't build it and they will go away" sounds like a motto for all those people who oppose new disposal facilities. It also sounds like a motto for people who support a ban on new or expanded disposal facilities. After all, if you can limit disposal options, you can force people to recycle or compost. We might even get people to stop making garbage!

Some product bans can protect the public's health. For example, lead was banned from paint because lead can cause severe health problems, especially in children. In 2001, many state legislatures will debate bills to ban mercury from consumer products, such as thermometers, because of mercury's well-known harmful impact on health. When scientific evidence shows that outlawing a product or a material is the only way to protect public health, bans make sense.

Some disposal bans also make sense. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., banned liquid waste disposal in hazardous waste landfills. And we don't allow people to throw garbage onto the streets because it attracts vermin.

Other disposal bans, such as those on leaves and other yard wastes, make little sense from an environmental or public health perspective. Perhaps that's why yard waste disposal bans mostly are found in states with higher disposal costs and more lawns and trees.

None of the intermountain states, for instance, ban yard waste disposal, probably because landfill costs are low, capacity is high and yard waste is less common. To add insult to injury, inadequate markets can force compost produced as a result of a leaf disposal ban to be used as alternative daily cover at landfills.

Throughout the '90s, Massachusetts has had a moratorium on new disposal capacity. State officials assumed that the higher disposal costs resulting from limited disposal capacity would enable residents to meet the state's aggressive 46 percent recycling goal. They were right about disposal costs rising. But the state's recycling rate is only 34 percent and only has increased 1 percent per year for the past three years. As a result of increased disposal costs caused by large amounts of garbage going out-of-state, Massachusetts officials recently decided to lift the ban.

At first, their decision was hailed as the right thing to do. Recently, however, several state legislators introduced bills to keep the moratorium on new disposal capacity. Apparently they believe their state can recycle its way out of its need for additional disposal capacity. And legislatures may be trying to avoid constructing new or expanded disposal facilities in their neighborhoods.

Disposal bans remind me of the old story about the king who decided to show his power by going down to the beach and ordering the ocean's waves to stop. They didn't. Disposal bans will be just as ineffective in preventing the need for landfills and incinerators.

People will continue to create garbage in spite of any politician's attempt to stop them. And, if Massachusetts isn't careful, it may have nowhere to put its garbage, except the streets.