Canadian Garbage

by on September 10th, 2004

Obviously pandering for votes, candidate John Kerry announced that he would immediately ban the dumping of Canadian garbage in Michigan if elected president. The State of Michigan, Congress, and Canadian officials have been wrestling with the garbage issue for well over a decade without resolution. The issue has been politically contentious and, maybe, unreasonably so. According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality,

Michigan handled 57.5 million cubic yards of trash in the 2002 fiscal year. Eighty percent of that trash was generated in Michigan, while 11 to 12 percent came from Canada. The rest came from other states, including Illinois and Ohio.

Therefore, Michigan devotes about 20% of its landfill space to imported garbage, divided somewhat equally among other states and Canada. Michigan is not running out of landfill space and the issue of receiving garbage from other states has long ago died down, yet the controversy of Canadian garbage continues to smolder. It appears that the reason is twofold. Emotionally, it’s repulsive to think that the United States is being used as a garbage can for another country and, intellectually, it makes no sense since Canada has much more open space than the U.S. with far fewer inhabitants. Logically, Canada is more than adequately prepared to handle their own garbage. So why don’t they?

To understand why Canada, primarily Toronto, is exporting garbage to Michigan, one needs to realize that it’s not their desire, rather, they’re forced to. With Toronto’s social and cultural climate so overwhelmingly liberal, community leaders and politicians beckon to the dictates of special interest utopians. In so doing, they shut down all operating landfills resulting in a caravan of up to 200 trucks daily going to Michigan with household, school, and restaurant waste from Toronto. And an effort to create a new landfill in a remote area of Ontario was blocked by environmentalists. In true liberal fashion, the decision-makers planned to compensate for the loss of landfill space with an ambitious recycling program which has yet to materialize and probably will be pushed aside due to exorbitant predicted expense. In summary, Ontario simply doesn’t, at present, have any alternatives other than sending their garbage to Michigan.

On the Michigan side of the border, there are several issues. There is a loud environmentalist outrage from advocacy groups who cite many reasons for not importing garbage. First of all, they don’t like landfills despite who is filling them. Opponents, however, reasonably assert that U.S. and Michigan environmental controls on what’s allowed to be landfilled are different and sometimes more stringent than Canadian standards. Also reasonable is their complaint that border inspections of garbage trucks are cursory at best, thereby increasing the risk that medical waste, chemical waste, contraband, and even people will easily and regularly enter the U.S.

On the other side of the garbage issue are two strong arguments. One is money. At current landfill charges of anywhere from $25 to $50 per ton (sometimes even higher), the total volume of imported garbage to Michigan represents upwards of $100 million or more going into the state’s economy. The other argument accommodating importation of garbage is the law (see here), specifically, the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Since garbage is defined as a commodity, its flow across the border can’t be arbitrarily halted without changing NAFTA.

This post started with the statement that Kerry is pandering for votes by raising the Canadian garbage issue. Well, others hold the same opinion.

Jane Pitfield, chair of Toronto’s works committee, accused Kerry of playing politics.

“It’s a cheap shot and I hope it costs him,” she said. “A threat like this accomplishes nothing.”

Michigan is a swing state and it seems John Kerry is looking for anything to nuance.

Companion post at Interested-Participant.

Mike Pechar