States have tried for years to limit the number of out-of-state trash haulers heading to their landfills. They’ve tried to ban shipment from crossing their borders. They’ve tried to make other states jump through bureaucratic hoops. But courts have repeatedly struck down those attempts. Now, a state is trying to stop trash from being imported from outside the country. But neighbors living close to a massive dump near Detroit say they’re not hopeful the effort will make their lives any better. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports:
States have tried for years to limit the number of out-of-state trash haulers heading to their landfills. They’ve tried to ban shipments from crossing their borders. They’ve tried to make other states jump through bureaucratic hoops. But courts have repeatedly struck down those attempts. Now, a state is trying to stop trash from being imported from outside the country. But neighbors living close to a massive dump near Detroit say they’re not hopeful the effort will
make their lives any better. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports:
The road to Dave Swisher’s home leads to a towering brown mound that grows taller every year. Trucks queue up well before sunrise. They wait their turn to inch up the side of the mound. They’ll each
contribute their few inches – of garbage, and human waste in the form of a grayish sludge. Swisher says he’s not sure which is worse: the stench drifting down from the dump, the dust that coats his car and home, or the constant stream of truck traffic.
“I’ve had times where I go to get out of my driveway, and I sit for trucks…I can’t even get out! They shouldn’t even be running that early. I leave at 5:30, 20 of six in the morning. Sometimes I can’t even get out of my own driveway for the trucks.”
Since the beginning of this year, many more trucks are barrelling past his home toward the landfill. Many of them are from Canada. The city of Toronto is now sending all its garbage – in 140 trucks a day – to this dump in southeast Michigan. And Swisher says a look at the license plates on other
trucks tells him where the rest of the trash is coming from.
“You’ve got some from Ohio, I think some from Illinois, an outside of that, I’m not sure how many states there are. But I know those three. And it just seems to be getting worse.”
Many people in the region share Swisher’s frustration. A report from the Congressional Research Service shows that the nation’s top ten trash importers include six Great Lakes states. Brooke Beal oversees solid waste issues for Chicago’s northern suburbs. He says there’s a reason
so much trash is coming to the Midwest.
“Here, most of the waste comes from the east coast. I mean, the east coast saw landfill capacity that we saw in the 80’s and 90’s shrinking back in the 70’s. They’ve been shipping their waste farther and farther west. I mean they started going to New Jersey, now they’ve moved to Virginia and Ohio, and they’re starting to move into Indiana. Because that’s where the landfills are – the
country, we’ll call it, because land costs are cheaper.
Chicago’s northern suburbs generate about 300-thousand tons of trash each year. Beale says all that trash is shipped across the border to Wisconsin. He says that’s because it’s closer and cheaper to export it than to ship it to downstate Illinois. Wisconsin tried years ago to block the trash coming from Chicago. But like similar attempts by
other states, the courts blocked the effort.
Trash, the courts say, is an item of commerce – just like steel
and cars and grain. And only Congress can regulate commerce.
Now, Michigan is hoping to succeed where other states have failed. Legislation would prohibit certain items from state landfills – including beer and soda bottles, and yard waste. States that want to
send their trash to Michigan would have to prove that they filter out those items.
Christopher Peters is a constitutional law professor at Wayne State University. He says the
legislation might not stand up to a legal challenge by the waste industry.
“I think a court is going to say that that is discriminatory legislation. Because it makes it more
expensive, essentially, artificially more expensive for someone to bring waste in from out of state
than for someone to dispose of waste that comes from inside the state.”
It’s not clear how Michigan’s plan would affect the steady traffic of Toronto’s trash coming into
the state. The city already diverts from its waste stream most of the items Michigan wants to prohibit.
And lawyers for the waste industry are already promising a court fight.
Meanwhile, in Dave Swisher’s neighborhood, the trucks are still rumbling past his house. He says
even if Michigan passes a new set of laws, he doesn’t have much hope that the legislation would help him
or his neighbors.
“It’s a dead issue. Nothing’s going to make it any better, nothing’s going to stop it, nothing’s going to ease it up. It’s just
going to get worse.”
Swisher says legislation isn’t going to make the landfill go away. And he says unless he’s willing
to sell his house for far less than he thinks it’s worth, he’s likely to be stuck here, too.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Sarah Hulett.