Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Dumping down at West Michigan landfills

By BRANDON HOWELL
Capital News Service

LANSING – West Michigan landfills are handling reduced waste amounts, and that means reduced revenue for their public and private owners.

The major reasons are diminished waste from manufacturers and dumping by consumers.

Tom Horton, vice president for public affairs in the Midwest for Waste Management Inc., said the economic downturn has hurt his company’s landfills, including Autumn Hills Recycling and Disposal Facility in Zeeland, Westside RDF in Three Rivers and the Hastings Landfill.

“Because of the poor economy, there’s less material requiring disposal,” he said. “Many people think of just household waste, but there are a lot of things that impact waste flows.”

Horton said a variety of commercial and construction waste sources have shrunk since the recession began.

“As those activities fall off because of the economy, it’s only natural that you’re going to see a decrease in the amount of material that goes for disposal,” he said.

Horton said it comes as no surprise that Waste Management landfills are accepting smaller waste volumes, citing a Department of Natural Resources and Environment report earlier this year that said statewide waste volume is down 13 percent.

Autumn Hills and some of the company’s other 15 facilities in Michigan have made changes to accommodate shrunken revenue, Horton said.

“Like any business, what you try to do is operate more efficiently,” he said. “What normally happens is you see overtime hours disappear and your operation becomes less expensive because you’re not buying as much fuel and you’re not buying new equipment.”

Even so, Waste Management hasn’t raised fees, Horton said.

“The only time we’ve had to adjust our rates is to reflect fees we can’t control, like costs for environmental compliance,” he said. “Those kinds of things can impact cost structure.”

Dennis Kmiecik, director of the solid waste division for Kent County, said the county landfill saw a 5 percent decrease in volume last year.

“We had a lot of manufacturers close their doors in the area, so that’s why we saw waste go down,” he said.

Kmiecik said the landfill, which is publicly operated, hasn’t cut back staff or hours so far, but has increased its tipping fee from $34 to $34.50 per ton. A tipping fee is a landfill’s charge to dump waste.

“That doesn’t sound like much,” Kmiecik said, “but it’s for about 200,000 tons that we expect this year. It’s minimal, but it’ll add up.”

Meg Mullendore, chair of the Southeast Berrien County landfill board, said the landfill in Niles had taken in less waste until recently.

“We noticed this last month that the amount almost doubled,” she said. “It had been down about 6,000 tons this year.”

Mullendore said the economy played a role in the situation, causing businesses and customers in general to rein in their finances as they could.

“When you have that kind of downturn, everything is impacted,” she said. “Spending by everybody went down.”

Mullendore said the landfill, which is owned by Buchanan, Buchanan Township, Bertrand Township, Niles and Niles Township, hasn’t increased fees or reduced staffs.

“The landfill’s revenues stand alone, separate from each of its jurisdictions,” she said. “While it’s municipally owned, it doesn’t rely on any of the municipalities for financial support.”

Mullendore said she doesn’t expect the landfill to have to make cuts or increase fees.

“Right now, we’re hoping that we’re going to see it swing enough that we’ll come out ahead,” she said. “If not, we’ll have to tap into our reserves.”

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

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