Trash Talkin’ Politicians

(Note: This commentary first appeared in The Detroit News on Nov. 8, 2006)

Voters can expect a lot of trash talk from politicians in the best of times, but innuendo, half-truths and distorted facts spew forth in an election season. This year, candidates from both sides of the aisle are vying for the moral high ground on the issue of Canadian trash.

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Campaign ads by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow boldly proclaim that she and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin provided the one-two punch that will end the importation of trash from Ontario by 2010, which she neglects to note was Ontario’s intention all along. Stabenow’s ads also claim that her opponent Michael Bouchard has done nothing to stop Ontario trash from entering Michigan, although it’s not clear what Bouchard could possibly have done given the legal protections afforded trash importation. For his part, Bouchard claims on his Web site that Stabenow’s efforts resulted in a "Canadian trash deal that just stinks."

Lost amid all the politicking are the actual facts about trash imports, such as:

  • Michigan exports its hazardous waste to Ontario and other states, including some 70 percent of our medical waste, as well as significant amounts of other hazardous liquids, solids and low-level nuclear waste.

  • Currently, 80 percent of all waste in Michigan landfills comes from within the state; the remainder is shipped from neighboring states and Canada.

  • The majority of imported waste is non-hazardous household waste.

  • Michigan has plenty of future landfill capacity if current disposal trends continue, industry experts say.

  • "Trade" in trash is protected under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

However, mention to many Michigan citizens that Canada exports non-hazardous trash to our state’s landfills and the common response is, "How dare they?" From this visceral reaction one might be led to conclude that Canadians are intent on burying Michigan under mounds of Molson empties, Peameal rinds and discarded Corey Hart CDs.

Some Ontario cities, including Toronto and its suburbs, have been shipping trash to a handful of Michigan landfills since the late 1990s. For example, Carleton Farms in western Wayne County and Onyx Arbor Hills in Washtenaw County hold competitively bid contracts to dispose of Toronto’s trash shipments. The bidding was open to both U.S. and Canadian landfill operators, who must abide by strict regulations enforced by federal, state, provincial and municipal governments. Indeed, health and safety regulations have driven up the cost of landfill development to approximately $1 million per acre.

From a peak of 120 truckloads daily, the number of shipments to Carleton Farms in Sumter Township has dropped 32 percent, to 80 trucks per day. The decrease has largely resulted from Toronto’s waste-reduction program, which calls for a 100-percent decline in waste by 2010. In fact, Toronto’s recycling and reclamation program is widely considered to be the most ambitious in North America — if not the world.

The waste management industry contributes significantly to Michigan’s economy. While figures for Michigan’s 52 landfills are not available, an economic impact analysis conducted by the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association of its 49 landfills in 2001 can be used to draw some inferences about the economic impact of Michigan’s similarly sized waste industry. According to the PWIA study, Pennsylvania’s landfills generated more than 20,000 jobs with an annual payroll of $644 million; added $4.6 billion to the state’s economy; and paid more than $100 million annually in landfill fees to municipalities and townships.

The average Michigan resident produces more than four pounds of trash per day — 20 percent of which is recycled. Generating jobs, as well as state and local revenues, can be considered beneficial for a state like Michigan, which has the second highest unemployment rate in the nation and ranks dead last in economic growth. While importing trash produces economic benefits, political trash talking merely litters the landscape of public discourse.


Bruce Edward Walker is science editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.