Wall Around Michigan

WHEN A MICHIGAN POLITICIAN recently complained about waste moving across the U.S.-Canadian border, citing, among other things, “the possibility for accidents and spillage [from trucks], potential contamination [of] land, water and air, [and] costs associated with police, fire and emergency services,” was he referring to Michigan exporting hazardous waste into Canada or Michigan importing Canadian garbage?

The logical answer is that he was worried about the impact of his state's hazardous waste exports, but the correct answer is that he was referring to shipments of household garbage into Michigan.

Once again, we're on the interstate trash roller coaster. The ride started more than 20 years ago when New Jersey attempted to erect barriers to keep Pennsylvania garbage out of Garden State landfills. Pennsylvania sued and won a U.S. Supreme Court decision stating the obvious: that states cannot erect trade barriers. As time went by, disposal patterns changed, and Pennsylvania landfills began importing garbage generated in New Jersey and other states. Pennsylvania politicians looked down and saw the disposal shoe was on the other foot. Ever since, they've tried to sidestep the Supreme Court decision they once hailed.

Four years ago, Virginia politicians were denouncing imports of New York City garbage into Old Dominion landfills. They reacted by passing laws to stop “yankee trash” at the state line. Their laws also were unconstitutional and were quickly thrown out by a federal court.

Now Michigan has entered the fray. Politicians in the Wolverine State are denouncing those perfidious Canadians for sending their trash to disposal sites in Michigan. They're raising a ruckus about potential disasters that will occur if foreign waste is not stopped at the border. They're demanding to know why those irresponsible Canadians don't have sufficient disposal capacity in their own country.

The irony is that Michigan companies rely on Canadian hazardous waste disposal facilities. Michigan also exports a considerable percentage of its medical waste to Ohio. The same politicians and journalists who get so worked up over Canadian trash never say a word about their own waste exports.

To add insult to injury, the Canadians are better at recycling. Michigan has a bottle bill that effectively recycles a small percent of the waste stream. But Toronto already has a higher recycling rate than Michigan. The city has an aggressive three-stream recycling and composting program that aims to divert 30 percent of its solid waste this year, 60 percent in 2006 and all of it by 2010. Just leave it to those Canadians. They are allowing Michigan hazardous waste into their country for disposal and also are out-recycling Michiganders. And they are providing markets for many Michigan recyclables.

Even though Michigan politicians appear to enjoy saying “don't dump on Michigan,” Canadians have stayed on the high ground and avoided returning fire with “don't contaminate Canada.” Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution and NAFTA protect free trade. Otherwise, what would those politicians say when the disposal shoe's on the other foot?

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org.