The Bill to Ban Grass and Leaves From Landfills

Sen. Ehlers has joined with Representative James Kosteva (D., Canton) to sponsor a bill outlawing the disposal of grass and leaves in landfills. In addition, the law makes the burning of leaves and grass illegal except in communities with populations less than 7,500, unless such smaller communities explicitly forbid burning. (Not being a lawyer, I have a hard time understanding why something which is illegal statewide can be legal locally.)

The law is predicated on the argument that since landfill space is scarce and expected to become even more scarce in the future, grass and leaves don't belong in landfills. They take up too much space. Grass and leaves should be composted and the law is intended to promote composting. Therefore, local governments will be required to develop procedures to collect yard waste and transfer it to composting operations. [160]

Rep. Kosteva claims that while it only costs $17 a ton to take material to a composting center, it costs an average of $34 a ton to take waste to a landfill. [161]

In fact, as noted above in note 119, the Task Force which provided Rep. Kosteva with the information he has chosen to use in sponsoring the landfilling ban, reported that the average cost of landfilling statewide was well less than $25 a ton, and the engineering estimates released to the Task Force indicated that even the newest landfills can operate at tipping fees below what he asserts it now costs to landfill grass and leaves. Where does he get his cost figures for landfilling?

Communities or private contractors will now have to continue their normal garbage truck runs here and there to collect household garbage to take to the landfill or the waste-to-energy plant. But they cannot collect grass or leaves as they did in the past. They will then have to come back at some appointed time to collect grass and/or leaves, depending on the season of the year, either in special bags or in some other form in which grass and/or leaves may be left for collection. This material cannot be taken to a landfill or waste-to-energy plant. It must be taken to a composting center.

What will it cost? Is the cost of the extra runs part of Rep. Kosteva's $17 per ton estimate? What will be the cost of operating the composting center? Will it be operated, as we discussed in the case of the Oakland County compost operation, in a way which accelerates decomposition? Or will the material simply be left to decay over a long period of time?

What about the odors which a large compost operation emits? Will it have to be sited far away from heavy population areas – and, therefore, farther from the areas where such material is collected, or will it be close to the areas where it is collected. If close to the areas where collected to reduce collection costs, will its neighbors just have to grin and bear it? Are there going to be political problems?

Has anyone attempted to analyze the costs of this law relative to its benefits? If they have, why was it deemed necessary to dramatically overstate the statewide cost of landfilling ordinary garbage? This law does not just apply to, say, Rochester Hills. It applies to, say, Traverse City as well. Landfill costs are quite different between those two points – and the ability of communities to move to implement this law are different across different regions of the state. Many communities will be forced to incur costs far greater than they currently incur.

The volumes of compost created by this mandate will find no market sufficient to cover the cost of meeting its requirements. This fact was noted above with regard to federal concerns about the lack of valid economic markets for municipal compost. Why is Michigan exempt from these economic concerns?

Once again, the failure to expedite landfill siting in this state – a state which still has significant amounts of open space – has moved the Legislature to pass a law for which the costs may well outweigh the benefits.

The question of what to do about grass and leaves would, left to market forces, be fully self-correcting. Those areas where landfill space – either natural or political – is scarce, will experience rising landfill tipping fees. Rising fees will send a signal to individual households telling them to do something about the amounts and kinds of waste they leave for collection. Rising landfill costs will make local compost heaps economically attractive. That, after all, is what this law intends. However, this law is not necessary to attain this end. Markets are better at doing this and markets should have been left alone to do it.

This is simply not an issue that requires a statewide mandate. It is a unique local issue and local governments who either collect waste or contract with private firms, as well as private individuals who pay private contractors for waste collection services, are in a far better position to know what to do with leaves and grass. Market signals tell them all they need to know.

Mandatory diversion of grass and leaves from landfills is not the most economically efficient way to get the job done. When the dollar costs start to mount for communities and individuals in areas which still have adequate landfill space, there will be a political backlash. That is the problem with trying to politicize what markets can do better without laws – political backlash. Why invite it when it was never necessary in the first place?