Michigan’s trash imports surge while low fees discourage recycling

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Almost 24 percent of the waste disposed in Michigan landfills came from other states and Canada in 2018, according to a recent state report.

Waste imported from Canada decreased by 7.6 percent, but that wasn’t enough to offset a 19 percent surge in discards from other states.

Low disposal fees are a major reason so much waste is imported, said Christina Miller, a solid waste planning specialist with the Department of Environmental Quality.

“We have properly planned our disposal capacity for many years,” she said. “By doing that, we have an increased amount of disposal capacity in the state. With a lot of capacity, landfills don’t charge as much to dispose of the material going into the landfill.”

The state’s solid waste laws encourage landfilling over recycling, said Sean Hammond, the deputy policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

“They were designed to make sure we had enough landfill capacity for all of our trash, and it did a very good job of that,” he said. “So good that our costs to landfill are very low. It makes it hard to compete for recycling.”

In the short term, landfilling may seem cheaper, but long term it’s cheaper to recycle, Miller said.

Taking into account the costs associated with monitoring and closing landfills, it will cost a lot more in the long run than it would have had the materials been recycled or reused, she said.

Michigan’s 27 years of landfill capacity is based on the current rate of disposal, Miller said.

That could change if landfills expand, more waste is generated or recycling increases or decreases.

Eleven states and Canada exported waste to Michigan in 2018. Ohio sent the most of any state, but Canada exported even more. The trash that traveled the farthest came from Kansas.

More than 52 million cubic yards of waste were dumped into Michigan’s 66 landfills in 2018, according to the report. That’s a 3.6 percent increase since 2017.

Three cubic yards is about one ton of waste.

Waste generated in Michigan increased by almost 6 percent.

Blame the economy.

“We don’t know 100 percent what the increase is from, but if people have more disposable money, they buy more things, which creates more waste,” Miller said.

“If more people come into Michigan, they generate more waste,” she said.

There is a direct correlation between economic  improvement and waste generation, Hammond said. “We think that’s always going to happen in some way.”

The state’s lack of investment in recycling is a problem too, Hammond said.

“The states that do well are investing a lot of money on a year-to-year basis from the state to grow recycling,” he said. “They’re doing that because what you see is a huge return on investment from raising the recycling rate.”

As long as disposal costs in Michigan remain low, it will be difficult to achieve a desirable recycling rate, she said.

Michigan has a long way to go, Hammond said.

“We should be looking at how are we doing more recycling, not just how are we making sure we have enough landfill space,” he said.

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