After years of decline, Canada's dirty diapers, coffee grounds and banana peels are once again being trucked to Michigan in a major way. The reason? Michigan's abundant landfills and low fees make it a preferred destination for trash from other states and other countries.
"Michigan has made its regulations as landfill-friendly and trash-friendly as any state in the country," said Mike Garfield, executive director of The Ecology Center, an Ann Arbor-based environmental nonprofit.
The amount of Canadian solid waste imported to Michigan jumped 19% from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2017, to nearly 10.6 million cubic yards, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's latest annual solid waste report. That’s enough trash to fill 881,000, three-axle dump trucks. Those dump trucks, lined up bumper-to-bumper, would stretch from Florida’s Atlantic Coast to California’s Pacific Coast and back to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas.
For neighbors to these landfills, that means odors, issues with groundwater and air pollution in some locations, and a seemingly endless parade of garbage trucks past their homes daily — often dropping parts of their load on local streets and yards. But while lawsuits and regulatory actions can clean up some of the issues, the overall growth of the trash-importing landfills essentially can't be stopped. Trash is a commodity, protected from restriction in interstate and international "trade" by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Michigan's 2017 volumes of Canadian solid waste are the most seen here in a decade, hearkening back to the early 2000s, when a surge in Canadian trash prompted 21 environmental, civic and religious groups to start a "Don't Trash Michigan" campaign. A deal brokered by U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., in 2006 reduced, then stopped, Toronto's trash from coming to Michigan, helping drive a six-year drop in the Great Lake State's garbage imports from the Great White North. But since 2013, it's back on the rise, apparently from private haulers and other places in Canada, as Toronto continues to dispose of its trash outside of Michigan.
Overall, more than 25% of all solid waste placed in Michigan landfills is imported from other states or Canada.
"The problem now is the same problem we had 10 and 20 years ago," said Garfield, who was a leader of the early 2000s campaign.
"It's not because the Canadians have it in for us — we did it to ourselves back in the 1990s," he said.
Then-Gov. John Engler's administration, via the Michigan Strategic Fund, used state taxes to underwrite at least $122 million in tax-free bonds to fund major landfill expansion in the state, Garfield said.
"They allowed so many permits to be issued for new, unneeded landfills in Michigan, we still — in 2018 — have a dramatic oversupply of landfill space," he said.
If Michigan took no further action to expand landfills, its existing facilities, at current solid waste volume rates, have about 25 years of remaining capacity statewide, according to the DEQ's most recent solid waste annual report.
"It's very cheap to dispose of in Michigan," said Christina Miller, the DEQ's Solid Waste Planning, Reporting and Surcharge Coordinator.
"We have quite a few years of capacity available here in the state. So it's a demand situation. We have space, so they are able to dispose of the waste cheaper here."
That leads to low gate or tipping fees charged by the landfills — often no longer run by local companies or municipalities, but instead now by giant national and international corporations such as Houston-based Waste Management and Phoenix-based Republic Services.
"The fees landfills charge to haulers are artificially low," Garfield said. "That makes us the magnet for trash all over the region."
Then there's the state-charged cost of admission for that imported trash. Michigan's solid waste surcharge, at about 36 cents per ton, is the lowest in the Great Lakes region, Miller said. Gov. Rick Snyder proposed late last month significantly raising the fee to $4.75 per ton — what the State of Ohio charges — to help fund cleanups of state toxic waste sites.
Three large landfills take in the bulk of Canada's trash exports to Michigan: the Carleton Farms landfill in Wayne County's Sumpter Township; the Pine Tree Acres landfill in Macomb County's Lenox Township, and the Brent Run facility in Genesee County's Montrose Township. Waste Management owns and operates the Pine Tree Acres facility; Republic Services the Carleton Farms landfill; Waste Connections Inc. the Brent Run Landfill.
Each of the three landfills received state permission to expand within the last five years, corresponding with a surge in the amounts of Canadian trash each landfill imported, a Free Press review of state DEQ records shows.
No landfill in the state takes in more Canadian garbage than Carleton Farms, near New Boston. The DEQ allowed in 2011 a permit to expand that left Carleton Farms with more than 39 years of remaining capacity. But in 2015, Republic Services officials were back before the DEQ, seeking to grow the landfill again. The DEQ again approved an expansion, increasing Carleton Farms' permitted area for dumping by more than 235 acres.
"State law gives very little power to deny a permit," Garfield said. "They're not allowed to take need, capacity, whether there's enough space, into consideration when they consider whether to approve an expansion."
Miller concurred. "As long as it meets all regulations, they are not going to be denied on that," she said.
All that growth helped fuel an explosion in Canadian trash imports at Carleton Farms. The landfill's imported Canadian waste increased more than 500% from 2012 to 2017, to more than 4.5 million cubic yards. More than 71% of the 660-acre landfill's waste comes from Canada.
"That's crazy — they don't have dumps over there?" said Steve Ostrowitz, who lives less than a quarter-mile from the landfill on Exeter Road in Sumpter Township.
"We've got enough trash of our own, without bringing the Canadians' trash over here. But they're allowed to do whatever their permit lets them."
Ostrowitz described life by Carleton Farms.
"It's the smell," he said. "The trucks are terrible, especially in the morning. They're lined down the road at 6 a.m. The trucks are notorious for dropping stuff off of them — breaking windshields, flat tires all the time. They have somebody going up and down that road, picking stuff up that's fallen off the trucks. But still there's garbage everywhere, all the time."
Opened in 1993, Carleton Farms was owned and operated by another company until February 1999, when Republic Services acquired and began operating it. The company in 2010 settled a class-action lawsuit for $3.325 million with neighbors to the facility who had alleged nuisance and negligence, including noxious odors and air pollution, from the landfill. About $2.5 million of the settlement was earmarked for improving gas emissions collection from the landfill, with $825,000 of the amount as punitive damages.
Calls to Carleton Farms were referred to Republic Services' corporate headquarters in Arizona, where messages seeking comment were not returned.
The U.S. and Canada have exchanged waste freely over generations, and still do. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada — an agency similar to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — almost 66,000 U.S. tons of hazardous waste and hazardous recyclable materials were imported to Canada from Michigan in 2016, almost 16% of the total of those types of materials the nation received from the U.S. The agency does not collect information on non-hazardous waste imports and exports, but household and common commercial waste imports to Canada from the U.S. are very small, officials said.
Michigan's exported hazardous waste to Canada comes from sources including Dow Corning Corp. in Midland, the Michigan Disposal hazardous waste processing facility near Belleville, the U.S. Ecology facility in Detroit, BASF Corp. in Wyandotte, Drug and Laboratory Disposal Inc. in Plainwell, and other Michigan companies.
According to a 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service, Canadian solid waste shipments to the U.S. were relatively small historically, as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture required incineration of foreign garbage to prevent foreign pests and diseases from harming U.S. agricultural production.
That practice was abolished in 1991, when the service determined it couldn't require the incineration of Canadian trash because of the lack of a scientific reason for it. Canadian imports of trash to the U.S. increased fivefold after the incineration provision was lifted, according to the Congressional Research Service report.
The issue gained more attention in 2002, when Canada's largest city, Toronto, announced it was closing its last landfill and would ship all of its waste to Michigan for disposal. During the imported Canadian waste boom of the early 2000s, officials from Macomb County to the state to Congress attempted to curb or stop it. But a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision, stemming from a St. Clair County landfill dispute, made that problematic.
Ft. Gratiot Sanitary Landfill in St. Clair County, in 1989, sought to import out-of-state garbage. Michigan's solid waste management policy at the time required that imported garbage be explicitly authorized in a county's solid waste plan — and trash imports weren't authorized in St. Clair County. County officials denied Ft. Gratiot's application, and the company sued.
Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, ruled the state and county restrictions discriminated against interstate commerce, in violation of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
"Waste is now considered a commodity, just like any other," said Darrell Smith, president and CEO of the National Waste & Recycling Association, a trade group representing private-sector waste and recycling companies in the U.S.
For the DEQ, that means that while the state can regulate how trash moves within Michigan between counties, "you cannot control the import or export of waste out-of-state or out-of-country," Miller said.
That's as it should be, according to the waste disposal industry.
"Our industry supports the free movement of waste, free markets," Smith said. "It should not be looked at as a negative. The waste industry generates thousands of jobs in Michigan. And Michigan exports solid waste to other states, and exports hazardous waste to Canada. Dealing with the waste burden is a worldwide issue."
Canadian trash imports had been on the decline in Michigan from 2006 to 2012, after Levin and Stabenow worked to convince Toronto officials to slow, then halt, the city's trash exports to Michigan by 2010.
That agreement has held.
"Solid Waste Management Services for the City of Toronto (the municipality) does not send any waste to Michigan," city spokeswoman Siobhan Ramsay told the Free Press in an e-mail, adding, "Private companies or other municipalities in Ontario may have arrangements to ship material there."
Canadian solid waste shipments to Michigan began to climb again in 2013, reaching their year-over-year peak in the most recently reported, 19% jump.
Where it's all coming from isn't exactly clear. The DEQ doesn't require specific origin information from landfills, Miller said, and the landfill operators aren't saying.
"The economy's gotten better," she said. "So many variables play a role in the amount of waste being disposed of — or even generated."
At the Brent Run landfill in Genesee County, Canadian waste imports dropped over the years until very recently, when volumes increased by more than 32% from 2016 to 2017. At the Pine Tree Acres landfill in Macomb County, recent years of declines in Canadian trash imports were reversed with a 16.6% increase from 2016 to 2017. Interview requests left with the landfill were responded to by an e-mailed statement from Tanisha Sanders, director of government affairs and communications for Waste Management.
"While Pine Tree Acres did see an increase in Canadian volume last year, since 2005 in Michigan, imported Canadian trash has decreased over 10%," she said. "During that same time period, total waste in Michigan landfills has declined about 20%. It’s a trend we’re seeing nationwide, and Waste Management continues to focus more efforts on recycling and reuse."
Waste Management is also focused on political donations. The Waste Management Political Action Committee of Michigan has contributed nearly $56,000 to state and local officeholders since 2016, state campaign finance records show. The contributions largely went to Republican candidates or to candidates for nonpartisan local offices, with a heavy emphasis on incumbents.
Not only do expanding, trash-importing mega-landfills affect neighbors who have to deal with groundwater pollution, odors and other nuisances, such facilities also undermine recycling, Garfield said.
"The reason Michigan has gone from one of the best recycling performances in the country back in the 1970s and '80s to being in the lower tier of states when it comes to recycling, the primary driver of that, is our oversupply of landfill space," he said.
"It's insane that we allow this kind of polluting operation to go on in the state and undermine our environmental goals."
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