Michigan's basic legislation governing the handling and disposal of non-hazardous solid waste is Public Act 641: The Solid Waste Management Act of 1979. Administered by the State Department of Natural Resources, the purpose of this Act is as follows:

An Act to protect the public health and the environment; to provide for the regulation and management of solid wastes; to prescribe the powers and duties of certain state and local agencies and officials; to prescribe penalties; to make appropriations; and to repeal certain acts and parts of acts.

Aimed principally at assuring safe and environmentally sound waste hauling and disposal practices, this Act requires local governments to prepare five year and twenty year plans which define their "waste shed" and describe how solid waste will be handled within their area. Each county's plan must be approved by two-thirds of the county's municipalities.

With specific regard to waste haulers, for example, the Act demands that "Waste haulers transporting solid waste over a public road in this state shall deliver all waste to a disposal area or solid waste transfer facility licensed under the act and shall use only a vehicle or container that does not contribute to littering and that conforms to the rules promulgated by the director." [145]

The law requires that municipal and county governments make provisions to assure that all solid waste is removed from the site of generation frequently enough to protect public health, and that such waste be delivered to a licensed waste disposal area, except for those wastes which are permitted by state law or rules promulgated by the department to be disposed of at the site of generation. [146]

Sections (10) through (19) of Act 641 are specifically focused on landfills to assure that the siting, construction, operation, and closing of sanitary landfills will be such as to assure maximum public health and environmental protection. In September 1990, the state Department Of Natural Resources promulgated new rules with respect to landfill construction and operation to assure even tighter standards. [147]

The role of the private sector in waste disposal is not preempted by Act 641. Indeed, the Act specifically states, "This act is not intended to prohibit the continuation of the private sector from doing business in solid waste disposal and transportation. This act is intended to encourage (emphasis added) the continuation of the private sector in the solid waste disposal and transportation business when in compliance with the minimum requirements of this act." [148]

Amendments to this act which would permit local governments to impose per ton surcharges on waste dumped into landfills located in their jurisdictions have been passed and submitted to the Governor. Allowing such charges is not a bad idea. It helps take pressure off local communities which fear that landfills, and the truck traffic associated with landfills, will damage roads and bridges. With the revenues obtained from these surcharges, communities would be able to maintain their public capital infrastructure.

I am not aware of anyone who takes exception to any of the sections of Act 641. This law is designed to assure sound waste management. However, other legislative proposals have been offered for managing waste and some have already been enacted into law. It is these bits and pieces of legislation which we intend to discuss.

Significant 1988 solid waste legislation included:

  1. Act 414: Enacted January 1, 1988, this act mandates coding of plastic containers consistent with Society of Plastics Industry recommendations.

    Purpose? To make it easier for recycling centers to separate one plastic container from another at the point where plastic materials are processed and baled for shipment to their specific markets. The fact that it seems necessary to require such coding is one more indication of the fact that there is no such thing as "the plastics market." There could be as many different markets as there are different articles, each with its own unique combination of different types of resins. Those communities which are so intent on solving the solid waste problem by instituting recycling centers and manning them with community volunteers should read this legislation as one more piece of evidence for turning all aspects of source separation, processing, baling, and shipping over to private firms which have comparative economic advantage and expertise in brokering materials into secondary materials markets.

  2. Act 415: Enacted December 17, 1988, this act establishes the Plastics Consortium and appropriates $5 million in state grants for research in plastics issues such as degradability, recyclability and end-use markets.

    There is almost no "problem" for which there is not someone or some group waiting to get hands on taxpayers' money to find a "solution." In fact, chemical experts have long known that the chemistry of plastics is such that the only way anything plastic could be made degradable – and that would be photodegradability, not degradability within the anaerobic environment of a sanitary landfill – would be to mix the resins with starches. The result would be a product which would require more, rather than less, oil-based resins to assure the structural integrity of the product. [149]

    With regard to recyclability and end-use markets, if there are markets for secondary plastics, and if these markets are strong enough to pull additional secondary plastics materials from MSW into the manufacture of other end-use products at prices which compete with virgin resins, taxpayers' money would be redundant. If taxpayers' money is required to fund these markets, then the stability and long-term durability of these markets would be doubtful.

    There is a simple rule we ignore at our own political risk: if something has to be subsidized, markets are not ready for it. If it is subsidized, political forces will quickly rally around the subsidy, making termination virtually impossible even after it has become clear that the subsidy is not producing what markets on their own will not produce. There are some programs which ought never to have been started in the first place. That which is suggested by this legislative proposal is one such program.

  3. PA 138/HB4178: Enacted during the 1990 session, this law established a surcharge on rubbish collection to create a fund for recycling and waste reduction.

    Michigan currently has more than 250 drop-off centers and more than 25 curbside pick-up operations and the number is still growing. Some of them are only collecting old newspapers while others are trying to add plastic milk and detergent containers, glass and cardboard. At this moment, all are running a deficit.

    The usual argument in defense of the need to continue to subsidize these operations is that despite the weakness of secondary materials markets relative to the cost of bringing such materials to market, recycling programs – even perpetually subsidized recycling programs – will save on landfill dumping costs in the long run.

    We have already discussed the economics of recycling and the economics of landfills vis-a-vis recycling. But what about those communities such as Marquette County which have recently completed high-tech sanitary landfills? Having made the decision to incur the costs required to provide an environmentally acceptable waste disposal system which can be expected to meet their needs for several decades, are they now to be taxed to subsidize those communities which have refused to allow landfills?

    Yes, that is exactly what this legislation does. It has the potential to send signals leading some communities to reject siting new sanitary landfills even when the geology, topography, and hydrology in their area would make it possible for environmentally sound landfills to be constructed. Moreover, access to what could become a perpetual fund for recycling could result in an excess supply of secondary materials sufficient to force prices well below what would be required to pay for instituting the program. That's not a prediction, it's only a probability--but a probability as close to one as it is to zero.

  4. PA 145/HB 4882: Amended PA 145 of 1988 to extend to October 7, 1989, the earlier bill requiring all six-pack connectors to be degradable.

    The problem here is litter. The presumption is that if plastic six-pack connectors were to degrade (only in sunlight, of course) litter would be reduced. Maybe, and maybe not. Could it possibly be the case that someone who wanted to discard the plastic connector surrounding their six-pack would now feel better about throwing it along the road believing that nature would make it disappear? If that were to happen we would discover something: litter attracts litter.

    Legislation mandating comprehensive recycling, as well as legislation aimed at developing markets for degradable and recyclable plastics, have their advocates in Lansing. But that is no reason for passing such legislation if the end result could be something worse than doing nothing.

  5. HB 4083: Would require restaurants to use degradable or recyclable food and drink containers.

    Portland, Oregon, has backed away from such legislation. So have other cities and states. Why should food containers degrade? For all practical purposes, nothing degrades in a landfill. It's a good thing that there is so little decay in a covered landfill. If there were more, leachate would be a greater problem than it is now.

    Why only recyclable containers? What is a recyclable container? Does anyone know at any moment in time what can be successfully recycled and what cannot? That's a market problem and markets are constantly evolving to ascertain what can and what cannot be recycled. Why try to make it a political problem?

    Perhaps a particular type of container can be recycled (remember that nothing is recycled until it leaves in one form and comes back in another) one month and not be recycled in another month. Who's going to define what constitutes a "recyclable" product and who's going to police the process? Already there are law suits pending in Amherst, Massachusetts over a local recycling agency's "peeking" into citizens' trash bags to see if anything "recyclable" is somewhere it's not supposed to be. [150] Mandatory programs require policing and policing yields political and legal controversy. Who needs it?

    As the old saying goes, "Hard cases make bad law." This legislation would be bad law precisely because it deals with hard-to-define and difficult to police cases.

  6. HB 4783: Would mandate development of a comprehensive statewide recycling program.

    Recycling is not a state issue, it is a local issue. There is currently nothing in state law which forbids a community from instituting its own recycling law. On the materials supply side, the ability to operate a truly successful recycling program is a function of population density (ease of collection and volumes which can be collected in a single day's collection run); and nearness to professional secondary materials brokers (in the Detroit area, such brokers would be close and numerous whereas in Ironwood or Iron Mountain, they would be distant and few).

    Any legislation which mandates statewide recycling might be a relatively inexpensive proposition for, say, Ecorse, but a prohibitively costly proposition for, say, Newberry. After all, a recycling center or a truck especially designed to collect separate materials costs the same in Newberry as it would in Ecorse. Newberry might have to run that truck for a week to collect what could be collected in one day in Ecorse. Ecorse could sell or give the secondary materials to a nearby broker whereas Newberry might have to pay a substantial sum to ship its materials downstate.

    Mr. Burt Rosen of Michigan's Great Lakes Paper Stock Corporation is an advocate of recycling, particularly paper recycling. After all, that's how he gets what he resells. Whereas he used to pay for newspapers, the glut in the market now requires him to demand payment from those who would deliver it to his company. Nevertheless, he is on record saying that the solution isn't to make laws forcing people to recycle. It would be more effective, he believes, to use tax incentives to encourage companies to use recycled materials. [151]

    This legislation moves toward statewide mandatory recycling – as the term "recycling" is constantly used incorrectly not only throughout the state, but throughout the country.

    If communities want to try to "recycle", let them do it. Legislating it statewide has the potential – through creating statewide excess supplies – to economically destroy those communities which are trying to do it in response to the particular and unique market signals which they face. The last thing in the world Ecorse needs is for Newberry to start a recycling program – and vice versa.

  7. HB4819: Would allocate bottle deposit funds to the state for solid waste recycling.

    Why the state? Solid waste is a local issue. Indeed that's precisely why PA 641 requires local governments to prepare their own solid waste management plans. Everything that can be said about making recycling a statewide issue applies to this legislation.

  8. HB 4821: Would require certification of a percentage of recycled materials in the manufacturing process, and encourage state agencies to purchase goods manufactured with recycled products.

    No doubt, many industries (the plastics industry comes to mind) which have invested millions of dollars in proving, at least technologically, that secondary materials can be used, would welcome such legislation. However, if it makes economic sense to make goods from secondary materials, goods will be made from secondary materials. If it doesn't, they won't. If it takes a law to accomplish this end, then something is fundamentally wrong with that law. What is wrong is that it flies in the face of market forces.

    Currently, at the federal level, agencies are encouraged to buy goods made from recycled materials – provided such goods don't cost too much more than goods made from virgin materials. How much more will Michigan state agencies be allowed to pay for goods made from secondary materials? Ten percent? Twenty percent? If anywhere near either percentage, what would this mean for the costs of running state agencies? Would those higher costs be somehow compensated for through lower landfill tipping fees? Does anyone really know?

    Who will examine goods claiming to be made from some mandated percentage of secondary materials? What are the chances that, to make a sale, some firms might be tempted to "stretch" the definition of what is a secondary material and what is not? Who will police this? How much will it cost to police this legislation?

    Hard cases make bad law!

  9. HB 4822: Would establish programs to encourage markets for recyclables.

    How? Markets for recyclables – i.e., secondary materials extracted from municipal solid waste – will emerge when, and only when, the price of virgin materials rises relative to the price of secondary materials presented in forms which make them immediately substitutable for virgin materials in established production processes. That may or may not happen over time. When that time comes, if it ever does, markets will emerge to pull secondary materials from MSW. No government agency need encourage that. Markets will offer the only encouragement which will ever make economic sense.