Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Drop in solid waste brings mixed blessings

By JOSH GARVEY
Capital News Service

LANSING-Michigan landfills took in less solid waste in 2009 than in 2008.

That sounds like it should be good for the environment but the reality could be just the opposite.

That’s because the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) collects a fee on trash to fund its waste disposal program, so less garbage means less money to monitor the landfills.

With 5 million cubic yards less coming in this year, that’s a large reduction in money.

“The funding for our solid waste program comes from a 21cents-per-ton fee that’s placed on every ton of garbage disposed of in Michigan landfills, regardless of where it comes from,” said Robert McCann, the DNRE press secretary.

“The Catch 22 that we’re faced with is that we’re seeing a sharp decrease in the amount of waste disposed of, but the effect is that we have a sharp drop in revenues coming into this department to run this program,” he said.

McCann attributes the reduction in waste to a combination of increased recycling and the recession. but Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) communications director Hugh McDiarmid blames the economy for the change.

“While we’re happy to see reduced waste going to landfills for a variety of reasons, it’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “We don’t like to see it because economic activity is down. We’d rather see it because we’re doing a better job of recycling, and I’m not sure that’s the case.”

The drop in waste has combined with a drop in the value of recycled materials to create a difficult time for the Michigan waste companies, according to Dave Rettell, the president of the Michigan Waste Industry Association.

“Like any Michigan company, we’re coping the best we can, whether by layoffs or hiring freezes or whatever,” said Rettell, of Veolia E.S. Solid Waste in Northville.

The missing money pays for programs that inspect landfills for environmental safety.

The fees are based on weight, but dumping is measured in cubic yards of waste. With the drop from 53 million cubic yards to 47 million cubic yards, the absent trash would fill 125,000 garbage trucks.

Without an additional source of funding within the year, McCann said there won’t be enough money to properly inspect the 81 landfills in Michigan, including 10 in the Detroit area, and one near Three Rivers.

He said the risk is that “we won’t be able to give communities the assurance that landfills are being operated properly, that there are not materials leaking out of the landfill and potentially getting into the groundwater supply and things like that.”

Michigan’s fee per ton is the lowest in the Great Lakes States, with Ohio charging $4.75 per ton and Wisconsin charging $12.98.  That low charge spurred Canada to send 9 million cubic yards over the state line last year, which was still a drop of more than 1 million cubic yards from 2008.

To compensate for that loss, the DNRE wants legislation to increase the per ton rate.

“What we’re proposing is raising it moderately, up to around 35 cents a ton, which is far lower than any other Great Lakes state,” McCann said. “We need to make sure that we have stable funding for our program. Otherwise, we aren’t going to be able to do our work anymore.”

The MWIA  has suggested  funding come from other sources.

“As we reduce what comes into our landfills, whether it’s because of economic reasons or because we’re recycling more, the agency will be consistently unable to meet their funding with the current system,” said Rettell.  “What we’re saying is that, to make it a more stable program, maybe the DNRE, instead of just hitting landfills with a fee, also hit the alternate options, like recycling and alternate use.”

McDiarmid said the MEC suggested an alternate plan, raising the dumping fee to $5.

“The problem from our perspective isn’t that there’s less waste going to the landfill, it’s that Michigan’s tipping fees are extraordinary low, virtually nonexistent,” McDiarmid said. “For a long time we’ve advocated an increase in the tipping fee, not only to fund environmental safeguards that we need, but to establish a real recycling program in Michigan.”

McCann said that although efforts to improve recycling are understandable current budget problems must be addressed first.

“There have been proposals in the past that would seek to raise our tipping fee up to $5, $6 or $7 dollars a ton,” he said. “And the purpose would be to discourage out-of-state waste from coming here. We can certainly understand that push and don’t have an issue with it, but we need to make sure that we have stable funding for our program.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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