Return to Sender

Vaughn, Ontario, a small community outside Toronto, is throwing a party to celebrate the closing of its landfill. However, the celebration won't continue south of the border in Sumpter Township, Mich., because its landfill is the likely home of the empty champagne bottles and other trash that will be generated from the event.

Garbage has been flowing out of Canada into Michigan for several years, so it was only a matter of time until waste volumes increased enough to cause a stink. Sumpter Township is divided over the Canadian waste imports, with environmentalists and Michigan's governor on one side, and town leaders on the other.

Some estimate that the community's take from the Toronto trash will increase to $3.4 million in 2003 from $2.2 million received last year. The town's supervisor says the money represents as much as 40 percent of the budget, and the community would go into receivership without it.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who reportedly said she wanted to limit the number of the state's landfills, may ask for inspections to determine if the waste meets Michigan's standards. Environmentalists have joined in with a “No Waste” campaign, even writing a protest song based on an Elvis hit, “Return to Sender.”

“Send us bacon and hockey, beer and curling, too,” they are saying, “but if you send us your garbage, we'll send it right back to you. And write upon it, return to sender, address unknown.”

How much trash is Michigan fighting about? Approximately 23,750 tons per week, or for our environmental friends, 186,274 Elvises (at his final weight of 255 pounds). The additional heft from the Canadians will add significantly to Michigan's imported waste totals, which reached 3.2 million tons in 2001, and gave the state the distinction of being the nation's second-largest trash importer.

This story's legs will continue to grow as large importing states join ranks to limit or even restrict waste transportation. They, of course, will be battling NAFTA and the Commerce Clause, which should make an interesting fight.

In the meantime, I see two additional problems in this particular waste-transport issue. First, Canadians use tonnes, otherwise known as metric tons, which no one down here really understands — despite years of trying to beat it into our heads. Second, Canadians are going to be sending us a lot of garbage with words on it like “bibliothèque” and “Madame Bovary” printed on them. How are we supposed to inspect this?

The author is the editorial director of Waste Age.