Public Act 641 requires local governments to develop their own waste management strategies to assure the prompt collection and disposal of wastes in ways which meet strict environmental standards. However, there is nothing in this law which establishes standards of economic efficiency. In establishing the principle that waste management is a purely local problem, communities are left free to spend as much as they wish to handle their own local solid waste problems.

It's a good thing that local communities have largely been left free to design their own waste management plans because local programs designed to address unique local problems can provide a laboratory for testing different waste-management strategies. What is unfortunate is the fact that laws aimed at dictating waste management strategies to all communities in the state, not only violate the underlying principle embodied in PA 641, they rob all communities of the opportunity to examine economic and environmental laboratory evidence.

Many communities across the state have developed waste management strategies which emphasize recycling; recycling with composting; recycling with landfilling; and recycling with incineration of waste in waste-to-energy plants. At the same time most of the state's counties have continued to rely almost exclusively on landfilling waste. It is those plans emphasizing recycling which have attracted media attention.

In late June 1990, Wayne County commissioners approved a solid waste management plan which will require virtually every community in the county to set up neighborhood recycling centers – one per 100,000 people – no later than January 1, 1991. One year after that date, cities which do not incinerate their garbage will be required to reduce the amount of trash they send to landfills by either picking up recyclable goods at the curb or extracting them from a central waste transfer facility. Milton Mack, chairman of Wayne County's solid waste planning committee, reports that the population of Wayne County cities which do not incinerate their garbage is about one million. However, even those communities which do incinerate garbage will be required to set up recycling centers for voluntary usage by residents. The county's goal is to reduce the amount of trash going to landfills by 75 percent by the year 2000. [163]

Yet, even with recycling, Wayne County's plan anticipates the construction of two new landfills and the expansion of three others. In attempting to implement recycling, some Wayne County communities are turning to per-bag fees for garbage collection to provide households with an economic incentive to separate their wastes – remove recyclable materials from non-recyclable materials. [164]

Royal Oak was forced to drop the per-bag fee due to citizen complaints. Instead, it has opted for a general property tax millage increase. [165]

Due to the fact that, over the years, landfill space has not been expanded in the Detroit area, many officials believe that recycling is the only way to avoid rising landfill tipping fees. Officials in many Wayne County communities expect to recoup some of the costs by instituting recycling programs through the sale of secondary materials. Prices ranging from $20 to $40 for a ton of glass and up $40 for a ton of scrap metal are expected to cover some of the cost of recycling. However, communities are also facing costs of up to $25 per ton for moving old newspapers.

To assure maximum sales of recyclable materials, some communities are considering anti-scavenger laws that would prohibit people from cruising neighborhoods in search of recyclables to sell on their own. [166] Other communities will issue citations to households which fail to comply with mandatory recycling. The violation, which is a misdemeanor, can carry up to a$500 fine and 90 days in jail. [167] While all these things are certainly part of an "economic" incentive for recycling, adding whatever additional policing costs such laws may entail to what it costs to run a recycling program has not yet been considered.

Paul Sincock, Assistant City Manager for public works in Plymouth, acknowledges that, at the moment, "Any monies generated (from recycling) don't meet our rentals and transportation costs. there's no money in recycling." [168] But, he and other officials in Wayne County communities argue, paying $25 a ton to remove old newspapers is better than paying $35 a ton to dump trash in a landfill.

Questions: When trucks run through neighborhoods to pick up ordinary household garbage headed for a landfill, including old newspapers still in the garbage bag, is it not the case that the cost of doing so includes the $37 landfill dumping fee? Once newspapers are removed from household trash and placed in separate containers alongside other recyclables which are also placed in their own separate containers, don't other trucks – perhaps especially designed to accept several separate and distinct containers – have to come back over the same routes to collect these recyclable materials? Following this, don't these trucks have to go to recycling centers where each material is processed separately? If, after all this has been done, newspapers – the largest single component in the typical community's MSW – still have to face a charge of $25 per-ton just to be hauled away, how does the overall cost of this separate operation compare with $37 tipping fees at a landfill for unseparated household garbage?

That's the issue I discussed above. And that's precisely the issue which local officials ought to examine in a careful analytical fashion. It may be true, in the long run, that massive recycling programs with high initial start-up costs will be cheaper than landfills. On the other hand, it may be the case that efforts to create new modern landfills will prove to be the most economically efficient way to dispose of waste. It may also be true that small, economically affordable incinerators like the Morbark gasifier may be better for high-density communities such as those found in Wayne County. The only way to find out the answer to these questions is to do careful economic analysis.

It's a good thing that Wayne County is pushing hard for recycling in place of landfilling or extensive disbursed incineration. By providing what amounts to laboratory experiments for other counties throughout the state, Wayne County can teach us a lesson and it's always good to be taught a lesson – provided we are willing to learn from it.

Oakland County is moving to do what Wayne County is trying to do: reduce the need for landfills. Oakland County's program is expected to cost $500 million and will include a waste-to-energy incinerator and at least one recycling center. [169] The incinerator will be designed to accept 2,000 tons per day and the recycling center 400 tons per day. County officials will use limited obligation bonds – which do not require voter approval – to pay for the start-up costs of this program. [170]

Despite the fact that citizens have protested the compost operation in southeastern Oakland County (recall our earlier discussion on this issue), and a landfill for the County's Rose Township, Oakland County officials refused to close the compost operation.

Many Oakland County citizens are angry with the plan because it includes incinerators and maintains some landfills. One group, Residents Against Incineration and Landfills (RAIL) argued that "People want to know what they're breathing and when they get sick from this and watch their kids die they are not being overemotional." [171]

What Oakland County is trying to do will be costly. Citizen opposition to what officials are trying to do will probably continue. Nevertheless, it's an excellent laboratory – and that's why the local approach to solid waste management contained in PA 641 is so valuable.

Oakland County also provides another kind of laboratory – a laboratory for what to do about old landfills which are really old "dumps."

On the final day of writing this study, a story appeared in the Detroit News-Free Press (October 5, 1990), about the closure of an old dump. Through a groundwater monitoring system, a 22-year-old landfill in Oakland County's Waterford Hills area was found to be leaking methylene chloride and benzene into one small area near the dump. Testing of wells near the dump indicated that there was no threat to nearby residents who draw their drinking water from wells, but state DNR officials did what they should have done: they ordered the landfill to be capped and closed.

Given that the dump was privately owned and operated, it was closed immediately and the private operator was ordered to remove the contaminated water. There was no need to go through the complicated process of having one unit of government – the state – argue with another unit of government – the county.

Both elements were found in trace amounts: methylene chloride was present at 190 parts per billion; and benzene was present at 2 parts per billion. A person who happened to drink two liters (2.11 quarts) of this water every day for 70 years would have a 40-in-1,000,000 chance of contracting cancer from the methylene chloride and a 2-in-1,000,000 chance of contracting cancer from the benzene.

This was an old, unlined landfill which had been receiving up to 1,000 tons of MSW a day for 22 years. By contrast, the clay-based and lined landfill in Williams County, Ohio, which receives waste from several Michigan counties along with Ohio and Indiana counties, has been operating for more than 30 years. With constant leachate monitoring and collection systems and methane gas removal systems in place, and with groundwater testing wells distributed all around the facility, absolutely no leachate problem has been discovered.

The fact that leachate – which is flushed below a landfill largely by rainwater which seeps in due to inadequate daily cover – is removed constantly by the Williams County private owner-operator, whereas it was not in the old Oakland landfill, means that modern landfills need pose no threat to communities.

However, the ability to monitor and quickly close an old landfill, as has been done in Oakland County, is essential. From that point, as old landfills are closed – as they should be – there is no reason why plans for new, carefully designed and monitored landfills, should not be part of solid waste management plans in those counties which have the proper geology.

Once again, the ability to adjust local plans to local conditions – as allowed by PA 641 and as encouraged in both the EPA and OTA reports discussed earlier in this study, is important. At the same time, state mandates which attempt to force specific solutions on a statewide basis and which treat all counties as if they had the same population and geological parameters, is not good solid waste management.

PA 641 lets laboratories emerge. Statewide mandates do not. That should be enough to warn state legislators against statewide mandates for solid waste management.