New Directions for Rural Solid Waste Management

According to The New York Times (Oct. 11), Americans throw away no less than 16 billion disposable diapers, 1.6 billion pens and 2 billion razors each year. That's a small part of an annual 1,300 pounds of household waste per person. About 10 percent of all that garbage is burned; another 10 percent is recycled; the remaining 80 percent is dumped in the 6,000-odd landfills still operating around the country, one-third of which will be full in five years. When it comes to safe disposal of garbage, America is way behind Japan (which recycles 50 percent of its refuse) and West Germany (which burns 30 percent of its waste).

Like the country at large, Michigan is in the beginning stages of a solid waste management crisis, only part of which has been publicly acknowledged in any meaningful way. By this time, after years of state officials discussing space and contamination problems, nearly every Michigan resident knows the need to minimize solid waste burial. Landfills waste natural resources, pollute groundwater, and are in very short supply.

What has not yet been obvious in that pending solid waste crisis is the lack of viable and economical alternatives to government simply dumping garbage in the ground. Until you've personally looked for an option to neighborhood garbage service, you can't appreciate how hard it is to find other ways to deal with junk. Burning in the back yard is generally frowned upon for safety and air quality reasons; private compost piles lack aesthetic appeal in most residential areas; not everything sells in garage sales; and sneaking your refuse to the local hardware store dumpster is fraught with risk and potential embarrassment.

As a consequence, when citizens find either their individually available garbage service or their collectively available land fills gone, they without a thought expect government to intervene in order that they may personally avoid responsibility for seeking a solution. Such response, despite plenty of rhetoric to the contrary, is simply conditioned behavior in today's economy. It is also likely to be a very bad response for rural and especially northern Michigan's solid waste problem.

The most widely touted landfill alternative is "waste to energy incineration." What has happened so far looks terribly much like another big government fiasco, this time at the local level where disposal responsibilities lie.

The scenario has been simple. The largest governments having the biggest piles of garbage are most in need of incinerators. And cities such as Detroit are building big ones, partially at the urging of the businesses that design and sell the plants and technology. What has developed are many heavily indebted governments trying to burn everything, and failing at it.

With alarming frequency, local taxes are increasing because of these failures. Expected revenues from cogenerated power sales frequently do not meet projections. New pollution problems appear as technologies fail. In particular, inadequate burn temperatures create high levels of air emissions and the residue particulate waste, or ash, is both more toxic and bulky than hoped for.

Burning everything remains the primary culprit; and, when failures occur, government is forced to dig deeper financially for things like acid air scrubbers or more tightly sealed landfills. In many cases, government costs have escalated even further as solid waste incineration industries with failing technologies went bankrupt or were closed by the corporations that had acquired them. With the closings, governmental units have been forced to purchase expensive technical assistance elsewhere.

The hope for rural governments, with their smaller tax bases and garbage piles, is that they can avoid the imposition of large-scale solid waste incineration and a repeat of the above, mostly urban scenario. Less populated rural areas will, however, feel strong pressures to undertake the same type of ventures on a consolidated, multi-county basis. In northern lower Michigan, for example, Department of Natural Resources estimates place the landfill shortages as more immediate and acute than for metropolitan areas of the state. State and federal officials will intervene if small rural governments do not take action on their own or halt the harmful environmental side-effects of solid waste dumping.

These are alternatives to more government if new partnerships can emerge in solid waste management. Even waste to energy incineration, especially on the smaller scale appropriate to rural areas, can be handled by less government rather than more.

For example, small scale incineration of refuse at low emission, high temperature levels is being pioneered at places like Morbark Industries of Winn, Michigan. The Morbark design, currently in the advanced testing stage, will allow clean burning at small plants employing relatively low level technology with a negligible failure rate. High temperatures of more than 2500 degrees can be maintained by small service crews of technicians with limited training. This approach can handle the fibers and wood-related wastes of clusters of 50,000 to 150,000 citizens without resorting to costly scrubbers. Moreover, with private investment in the facilities, for-profit firms rather than government can assume the financial risk and indebtedness of the projects.

But like most successful strategies, this one entails involved cooperation from several parties rather than a relaxed commitment to letting government do the work and determine the rules. First, a consortium of adjacent communities and counties would have to cooperate on regulating garbage service and resist the urge to undertake their own locally-controlled disposal projects. Second, private investors would have to be found by guaranteeing them the freedom from government and government monopolies to make a fair profit. Collection and disposal prices, at the local level, can not be fixed below costs just to keep citizens happy. At the state government level, cogeneration plants of this size would need access to public utility markets for selling the electricity they produce. In essence, small scale waste to energy plants would need a businesslike arrangement with state and local governments. They cannot maintain relationships with industry based on the shifting political influence of citizens who dislike paying their fair share or utility monopolies that dislike giving up some of their protections from competition.

The final piece of the puzzle for rural cogeneration plants requires active people involvement in the search for solutions. To burn successfully, garbage suppliers--you and me--need to provide separated trash. We must recycle as well as just throw things away. Small-scale burning facilities, as those envisioned by Morbark, yield only clean air and easily disposable ash when metals, glass, and toxic compounds are previously removed. So far at least in the United States, most of the public has been reluctant to volunteer that much to good conservation.

Such volunteerism is a very small price to pay for rounding out a public/private/citizen partnership that helps avoid yet another overly bureaucratized, big government fiasco. If entrepreneurs like those at Morbark have a better idea, let's hope that it isn't lost because of public apathy and laziness. And, besides, for all the hassles of recycling, it will always be easier than hiding your compost pile or fighting with the hardware store owner over using his dumpster!


Mr. Reed is President of The Mackinac Center, a private, non-profit educational and research organization in Midland. Permission is hereby granted to print or broadcast this article, in whole or in part, with appropriate credit given to the author and to The Mackinac Center.