A. The Politics

As the economy has grown and consumption has increased, there is more to throw away. [98] Nevertheless, the Municipal Solid Waste problem has less to do with the fact that more is being discarded than it does with the fact that, in recent years, new landfills have not been allowed to open at a pace sufficient to match the rate at which solid waste has been generated.

Across the nation, during the most recent five-year period, the number of new landfills constructed dropped almost 50 percent from the previous 5-year period, and was at the lowest level for new construction in 20 years. [99]

In Michigan, according to Carl Zollner of the Department of Natural Resources' waste management division, the state could run out of landfill space as early as 1992. Michigan now has about 70 licensed landfills. There were more than 10 times that number just a decade ago. [100]

Nationally, 46% of MSW landfills are more than 15-years old; 30% are more than 20-years old; and only 10% are less than five years old. [101] Data collected by the Council of State governments in 1986 indicate that Michigan, absent any effort to expedite the development of new landfills, currently has no more than six years capacity left in those landfills which remain. [102]

There can be no question that we need to close old landfills which were built and used long before we became aware of the hazards which poorly designed and managed landfills could create. But closing old landfills is one thing. Using the specter of old landfills as a model for opposing new, modern landfills is another.

Older landfills – many of which could more appropriately be called "dumps" – have, in the public mind, come to symbolize all landfills and have given rise to the view that landfilling can never be made safe. Therefore, on environmental grounds alone, many argue that landfilling must never again be considered a viable solid waste management option. Even if the case could be made that modern landfills are not a threat to the environment, [103] there are many who would argue that throwing household waste into a hole in the ground is an economically unsound use of scarce economic resources. [104]

The problem with many of the arguments against landfills is that they seem to be based on the notion that landfills can never be like anything other than the old "dumps" we all remember. No one wants an old "dump" in their backyard, neighborhood, or anywhere else. Therefore, no new "dumps" should be built. Consequently, virtually all legislative proposals aimed at forcing manufacturers to produce goods which are more durable – as if goods which last longer would automatically be kept longer – and goods which are made of materials which can be recycled or safely burned are aimed at one thing: reducing the need for additional landfill space. That these arguments form the basis for potentially dangerous political struggles cannot be denied.

The thorny politics of landfills is simple: no one wants them largely because no one really knows that much about modern landfills. For many people, a landfill is a "dump", and that's all there is to it. But the fine "art" of politics is to muster the information needed to confront the difficult questions. No progress can be made in bringing the landfill part of the so-called "Waste Management Hierarchy" into play in Michigan until both citizens and elected officials recognize that what an old "dump" looks like has nothing to do today with what have to do with our waste tomorrow.

Old landfills are part of the past and what is past, is past. The issue is, where do we go from here and what role can landfills play in helping us solve the solid waste management problem in ways which are both environmentally sound and economically efficient?

A modern landfill is not a "dump". Until efforts are made to make that distinction clear, needed landfill capacity cannot be created. But there is a way to make that distinction clear. Arkansas and Texas offer a model for Michigan. Both states have developed careful procedures for educating the public about what landfills are and how they compare, both in terms of cost and environmental impact, with other waste management alternatives. [105] Consequently, landfill development in those states has kept pace with the growth in waste volume far better than is currently the case not only in Michigan, but in many other states as well. [106]

Absent sustained development of new landfills, Michigan will, sooner than we would like, face a true solid waste problem similar to that which characterizes states in the Northeast quadrant of the U.S. – states where landfill development virtually ceased over a decade ago. When and if that time comes, Michigan communities may have no choice except to either ban or heavily tax certain products; institute programs aimed at recycling and/or composting of wastes regardless of the economics of recycling and/or composting; or increase the volume of waste incinerated. [107]

However, people are just as reluctant to accept new recycling centers, composting operations, and waste-to-energy incinerators as they are to accept new landfills. New Jersey's mandatory recycling law has not stopped citizens from blocking trucks going into recycling centers. [108] Thus, failure to move quickly to allow new landfills to be sited is not going to make solid waste management less politically troublesome. It is simply going to make solid waste management more economically and technically troublesome.

Perhaps if we could have "Landfill Education" similar to the "Recycling Education" which is currently in vogue in many Michigan school districts, we could help citizens understand the technical issues which surround landfills. Such an education effort would not guarantee that new landfills could be sited without controversy, it would only mean that the controversy would be based on something more than the passion which flows from the notion that there is no difference between a modern landfill and the old "dump."

Educating citizens to help them understand the difference between a landfill and a "dump" would not be a bad idea. What would be a bad idea is to do nothing for fear of political opposition and end up looking at landfill tipping fees similar to those which characterize the Northeastern U.S.