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Oh Michigan!

It's back! Just when you thought sanity was again reigning in Washington, America is worried about Canadian trash. (OK, I'm kidding about sanity and Washington, D.C., as anyone following the debate on our debt limit and budget knows.) In spite...


It’s back! Just when you thought sanity was again reigning in Washington, America is worried about Canadian trash. (OK, I’m kidding about sanity and Washington, D.C., as anyone following the debate on our debt limit and budget knows.) In spite of the problems facing our country, both of Michigan’s US senators have introduced legislation intended to stop the shipment of Canadian trash into the United States.

Once again, they’re raising concerns that Canadian garbage is somehow bad, worse and more dangerous than America’s garbage. Senator Debbie Stabenow’s proposed Stop Canadian Trash Act (S. 840) would impose a $500 fee on each truck transporting foreign municipal solid waste into the United States. At $500 a pop, she figures Canadians would find somewhere else for their trash. Senator Carl Levin’s S. 860 (alas, no title) would require the Department of Homeland Security to prove that it can screen shipments of Canadian garbage for terrorist weapons to the same extent that it can screen shipments of other Canadian products for these weapons.

The two senators say they’re merely interested in protecting the health, safety and security of Michiganders. Perhaps. Although I suspect they are simply acting in the time-honored tradition of politicians throughout the world in seizing upon an unpopular issue – in this case shipments of Canadian garbage to American landfills – and using it to prove to their constituents that they’re fighting for them! (It’s worth noting that Michigan politicians have never complained about the export of Michigan hazardous waste to Canada.)

Let’s look at the issues they’ve raised.

Does Canadian trash pose a health and safety threat?

Five years ago, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5 office released “Transboundary Movement of Municipal Solid Waste Comprehensive Inspection Report.” The study detailed the results of seven-month’s worth of inspections of Michigan and Canadian trucks depositing materials at eight Detroit-area landfills. Lo and behold, the inspections showed that Canadians and Michiganders make pretty much the same trash. EPA’s inspection team didn’t find significant problems in the garbage produced on either side of the border except that Canadian trash was slightly cleaner. Michigan waste actually had a slightly higher rate of “potentially prohibited items without a de minimis threshold” than did Canadian waste.

As for compost and recyclables, both sides of the border were doing a good job. Yard waste – banned from disposal in Michigan – was found more often in Michigan than Canadian trash. However, beverage containers were more likely to be found in Canadian garbage, possibly (according to the inspectors) because Ontario doesn’t have a bottle deposit, unlike Michigan.

As for security, a 2006 report from the Department of Homeland Security, “Audit of Screening of Trucks Carrying Canadian Municipal Solid Waste,” recommended the development of procedures and minimum requirements for selecting and inspecting trucks carrying Canadian municipal solid waste. However, the report also noted its officers were assigned “to higher risk priorities” for several months during the audit.

The debate over trash imports is not a partisan issue. Five years ago, Republican House members from Michigan delayed a vote on a proposed Free Trade Agreement with Oman in order to get a vote on banning Canadian trash. That bill never came to a vote in the senate because calmer heads prevailed. In fact, Michigan’s two senators noted the House bill would face serious legal challenges under the North American Free Trade Agreement and the US-Canada Agreement on transboundary waste shipments.

Yet now they are back.

They know that an outright ban will be illegal so they’re trying new legislative proposals in an attempt to undo what treaties guarantee. That’s just politics in all its glory. Will they succeed? I doubt it. Senator Stabenow’s bill might pass the free trade test if the $500 fee was also imposed on Michigan-generated garbage. (Given the results of the EPA inspections, maybe it should!) But I don’t think her constituents would be too happy to see their garbage costs soar.

Let’s face it, this debate is unending. As long as people make trash, so will politicians.

Chaz Miller is Director, State Programs for the National Solid Waste Management Association (NSWMA) in Washington, DC. Contact Chaz at cmiller@envasns.org


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