Up in the Dumps

Michigan landfill business is booming

Here’s a sign of economic growth that most people overlook: The landfill business in Michigan is booming. The amount of waste sent to landfills continues to grow from a low point in 2012. Though recycling policies may have an effect, industry insiders say the increase in waste disposal signals an improving economy.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality reports a 3.1 percent increase in solid-waste disposals in the state’s landfills in 2016 over 2015, while trash imported from Canada and other states increased 7.5 percent. Waste disposal from Michigan businesses and households increased 1.8 percent from the previous year, according to the department’s “Report of Solid Waste Landfilled in Michigan for Fiscal Year 2016.”

Michigan Waste & Recycling Association President Kevin Kendall said the increases indicate a marked improvement in economic activity throughout the Midwest and neighboring Canadian regions. “It’s a good problem to have,” he said. “A rebounding economy means there’ll be more waste volume.”

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Waste volume as an indicator of economic strength is bolstered by DEQ data reporting significant decreases in solid waste disposal between 2007 and 2016. While nearly 57.4-million cubic yards were disposed of from all sources in Michigan landfills in 2007, that number decreased steadily to a low of 43.9-million cubic yards in 2012. Solid-waste disposals in 2016 were up significantly at 49.1-million cubic yards.

“The uptick in municipal and commercial solid waste in Michigan the past several years is a sign of increased economic activity,” said Tom Horton, a spokesperson for Waste Management Inc. The Houston, Texas-based firm operates nearly half of Michigan’s 47 municipal and commercial waste landfill facilities. “Much of the increase in imported waste is attributable to construction and demolition.”

But the conclusion may understate the economic upswing, said Te-Yang Soong, vice president and principal engineer with CTI & Associates, Inc., an environmental, remediation and construction contractor headquartered in Novi. “That assessment may hold some element of truth since conventional wisdom suggests that landfills are the last to see the economic impact of a downturn, but the first to be positively impacted by an economic upswing,” he said.

“Undoubtedly, the availability of viable recycling options also has an impact on landfilling,” Soong continued. “It is unclear whether improvements in data collection may have also contributed to a perceived increase in waste volume. As most large manufacturing facilities and federal installations have adopted ‘Zero Waste’ and ‘Landfill Free’ practices, it is unlikely that significant and sustained increases in landfilled waste will be the norm.”

Capacity Shifts According to Need

At their current capacity, Michigan landfills can, on average, receive waste for another 27 years, up from 17 years projected in 2007. Horton explained that the state is only able to report what is currently reported and under a permit. He noted that landfill operators only request DEQ permits based on immediately projected needs rather than long-term forecasts. “Just like home builders only seek permits for the house they plan to construct in the coming year, landfill operators also make plans based specifically on what they need for the immediate future, making adjustments according to need,” said Horton.

Trash Imports and Diminishing Returns

Michigan trades its trash with other states and Canada. Although the DEQ reports 23.6 percent of all waste disposed in Michigan is from Canada and other states, Horton said Michigan exports municipal and commercial waste to other states and sends hazardous waste to Canada. For example, the Ohio EPA reports Michigan exported nearly 15 tons of solid waste to Ohio in 2015. Ohio, in turn, exported nearly 437,000 tons of solid waste to Michigan.

Interstate trade in trash varies year to year according to contracts, fuel prices and tipping fees (the cost to unload trash at a landfill). For example, Wisconsin imported 10,000 tons of Michigan waste in 2014, which was down from 50,504 tons in 2009. By comparison, the Badger State imported 1.4 million tons of waste from Illinois in 2005 and only 76,000 tons in 2014.

“Increased regulation and competition for volume also play a role in landfill viability,” said Soong, explaining that operating costs have risen due to increased regulations and regulatory fees. “At the same time,” he noted, “competition for volume has resulted in stagnated disposal rates and a decreasing return on investment for operators.”

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