Smell that? Michigan landfills might be permitted for trashy reasons.

It is good news that the agreement between Michigan’s Carleton Farms Landfill and Toronto’s Solid Waste Management has long been expired.

For those who are unfamiliar with the waste disposal contract, it allowed Toronto to export heaps and heaps of trash into Michigan. As the document “Facts about Toronto’s Trash” reveals, from January to August 2007, on average, approximately 441, 363 tons of solid waste went to this Michigan landfill a day. That is the equivalent of about four and a half modern day aircraft carriers. This document was current with 2007, and the contract expired in 2010.

The actions that were taken under this agreement are surprising and disappointing. For about a decade, Toronto became a cleaner city while we received all of their trash. Literally. While we extracted the negative implications of garbage, they were improving in rates of recycling, implementing innovative composting techniques, and, in turn, ridding their environment of toxic greenhouse and methane gases released from garbage.

I have to say, I took a hit to my Michigan pride upon reading this information. Thinking about this contract got me a little infuriated. It seemed that the Michigan government allowed Toronto to use our state and our territory at their disposal (excuse the pun)—as simply a benefactor to their environmental success. Plus, we were willing to relinquish our own environmental longevity for their benefit.

Why would we want to do that? Why would we sabotage the health of our environment, the promise of our future of people and land? It puzzled me. Carleton Farms Landfill, located in Sumpter Township, Michigan, in the southeast region, is not even that close to the U.S. border with Canada. So it is not even like it was extremely convenient for Toronto. How could Michigan brush it off as a favor, when we are gaining toxic waste? I started thinking about the impetus behind making this agreement.

Of course, money drives everything, but no matter how much money Michigan companies were offered, the agreement could not be lucrative for Michigan. Firstly, the environmental cost of accepting Toronto’s trash makes a much bigger dent in our futures than it adds to anyone’s bank account. Secondly, our end of the bargain implies a possibility for increased taxes at a later date to tackle problems that the trash could engender. By accepting their trash, our state government ultimately tacks these strains onto us citizens themselves.

So, curious to know why Michigan made this agreement with Toronto, I explored a bit. I was hoping to discover that Michigan’s rationale was ethical—not just chasing money.

It appears that the Michigan government had the power to either stop or authorize the contract. I make this assumption based on 1994 debacle over expanding the Sumpter Township landfill. Yes, the same landfill that supplied the Toronto trash. The expansion was campaigned for by the City Management Corporation, with visions of being a trash dump for Toronto. Despite vehement opposition by the Ecology Center and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, then Michigan Governer John Engler, said okay to this plan. The details of the agreement are explained in this article, in which the author writes: “The City Management expansion permit was one of many Engler administration political favors for the developers and polluters.”

So, I have deduced two possible reasons that Michigan made this agreement.

1)  It was a financial opportunity.

2) It was a political favor, as author of the above article suggests.

My break down of these reasons:

1) Might not be valid. If it was a financial opportunity, we weren’t maximizing our potential profits. Michigan was charging communities $10-15 a ton of garbage for dumping their trash. States like Ohio and Indiana were concurrently charging $20-25 a ton of garbage.

2) The author’s loaded statement suggests something that I didn’t think of—that the agreement was spawn by a power struggle of politics. I suppose I hadn’t thought in this light, because I am not the top authority for any political decisions. Politicians, on the other hand, are in these situations. Based on the real-world pressures of their decisions, sometimes they are coerced to do things to please people, though they may do real damage. In the garbage scenario, tightening ties with Toronto might give us an ally in times of disagreement, but it contaminates the environment.

Overall, I am still confused about the impetus of the Michigan government, because I did not find an article that explains what we would get in return from Toronto for strengthening our political ties. At least, something we really need or desire. Have we received any compensation anyways?

This question lingers, as do others. None of my hypothesized reasons justify the agreement, still. It hurt our environment and obviously bothered our people. This article from the Toxic Trade News, the Basel Action Network (BAN) online publication, which works to prevent the globalization of the toxic chemical crisis, clearly illustrates how the landfill upset residents of Sumpter Township. They would hear the garbage trucks and smell the disgusting fumes on a daily basis.

Most irritating of all is that garbage is being eliminated with harm to the environment more than it is not. Recycling is great, but people simply do not recycle more than they throw away trash. See here, which describes “, the EPA estimates that 75 percent of solid waste is recyclable, only about 30 percent is actually recycled.” After the trash goes to landfills, it is diverted. The process of diversion means transferring the garbage from one place, the landfill, to another, such as a waste processing facility. This is helpful so that the big piles of trash are non-existent, but what is produced is toxic fumes unleashed into society.

With these ongoing issues in trash handling, who is doing the right thing? Recycling is our best bet, but people aren’t doing it enough. How can we get people to recycle more? How can journalists do this? Spitting out numbers and figures, or elucidating the benefits to our environment, are played tactics. Why aren’t they effective? Is the intrinsic good-hearted rush of recycling not enough to motivate people to recycle? Does the government need to reward its citizens in tangible ways for recycling to induce the behavior? Sure, there has been a lot of growth in the recycling trend, but it needs to be ramped up if we want to conserve our environment.


6 Responses to “Smell that? Michigan landfills might be permitted for trashy reasons.”

  1. Getting people to recycle is a difficult challenge. I think one of the major obstacles is the fact that people are simply uneducated. I bet a lot of people are unaware of the problems with trash handling, especially those who don’t live near landfills. Also, I think most people don’t know about the benefits of recycling or think it is more complicated to do than it really is. Additionally, many cities do not offer curbside recycling, so it is inconvenient for residents to drive to the local recycling center unless they are truly motivated.

    As far as journalism goes for motivating people, you have to look at other kinds of articles that have sparked a reaction in people. It is usually the sensationalized, fear-mongering type of articles that influence people to act. However, this is not responsible journalism. From my understanding, it is not the journalist’s responsibility to motivate people; rather, they should present the unbiased facts surrounding an issue and let the reader decide what course of action he or she should take.

    I think the best way to ramp of recycling efforts would be to first educate people on how to recycle and the benefits that would result. Secondly, cities should offer some kind of incentive or create policies to encourage recycling. For example, a city could pass a law requiring all residents to use a certain size garbage can and limit the number of them at each house for roadside pickup. If people have limits on how much they can throw away, it might encourage them to recycle more.

  2. Abby – great post!
    Call me nerdy, but I’ve recently discussed in a different class (Environmental Justice 222) all about landfills, recycling etc. In the recent past, the United States has actually seen a significant decrease in numbers of landfills. In 1978, there were around 20,000 landfills and in 2009, there were only 1,908 landfills. Now, that number is misleading because the landfills that do exist are much larger than those of the 70’s, but still – I think having ‘less frequent’ landfills, meaning one landfill for several towns rather than one in every town, is preferred by the general public because let’s face it – who wants to live by a landfill?
    Also, in regards to recycling, there is hope! In the 70’s, there were only 1,042 curbside recycling programs and in 2009, that number was 9,066! That number means that 70% of all households in the U.S have access to curbside recycling which I think is a huge step in the right direction. Education is still needed and steps toward\ making the recycling process more user friendly would go a long way, but I think our progress thus far is good.
    In regards to your concern with Toronto’s trash, I do think it’s all about the money. While I’m not trying to make excuses, one has to consider the state of the economy when the decision was made. Michigan’s economy was terrible and was looking for any kind of funding. Trash, as detrimental in the long run as it might be, was an easy fix that brought in an income for the state. We have land, they have trash – it made sense at the time to fix a problem. Other measures were taken to bring in money (I can recall at least 4 movies that were filmed in Michigan in the last 5 years), and while I’m not supporting the idea to export trash, you have to consider all sides.

  3. It’s a matter of truly understanding the benefits of recycling. Numbers and statistics on an article or flyer isn’t going to do much now. I feel like that’s a tactic used my almost everyone who is trying to conserve or cut down on the usage of something. Issues dealing with trash need to be shown to people.

    Recently, I volunteered at a garden where they did composting–creating mulch out of garbage–at the Leslie Science Nature Center in Ann Arbor. I actually got to the see the process and the man who worked there explained it to us step by step. Seeing the mulch being processed, observing the worms crawl through it, and learning about where the garbage comes from really helped me understand how simple and beneficial composting could be.

    If journalists could portray places like these to the public, it would probably be more effective. Personalization tends to persuade people more often than generalizing. This is not blurring the facts about recycling; it’s simply presenting an alternative to disposal. Sometimes people wonder what exactly happens when goods are recycled. It may be beneficial to show the next step.

    • Ruhee, I really like your thoughts about personalization helping to draw attention to a story. Great point. Throughout the discussions this week, I see lots of story ideas. That’s terrific!

  4. There is no easy way we can get people to recycle more, but statistics and scare tactics are not going to do it. I think it all comes down to convenience. People are going to do what is easiest, regardless of the long term effects. Most people who don’t recycle are probably aware that their waste will have negative effects on the environment, but because it is simply easier and faster to not sort their trash, they’re not going to be concerned with the long term effects.
    In cases like these a journalist has to do more than spit out facts that people already know. They need to increase awareness that is relevant to the reader on a day to day basis, something that will affect their daily life, not just long term speculation.

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