We live in an era of waste imperialism.
Unwanted or hazardous waste is dumped on unwilling or unsuspecting communities. States aren’t struggling to reduce waste, but rather are battling for the right to call their garbage “commerce” and ship it out of state. New York City dumps its unwanted waste in Virginia — as much as 18,000 tons a week. Computers shipped to Asia for recycling wreak havoc to public health and the environment. Waste incinerator ash from Philadelphia — originally dumped in 1986 on a Haitian beach — floats on storage barges off the coast of Florida still awaiting a final resting spot.
The waste wars are not new. In the mid 1980s, San Francisco tried to toss its trash over the mountains in Yolo County. The county refused. During that same decade, Essex County, N.J., wanted to send 4,000 50-gallon drums of radium-contaminated soil to Nevada. Then Gov. Richard H. Bryan angrily declared that his state is “not going to be a nuclear dumping ground for the country.” A federal judge in Boston held that city liable for polluting Boston Harbor with 70 tons of sludge a day. The Massachusetts Water Resource Authority applied for a permit to dispose of its highly toxic sludge off the coast of New Jersey. Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) ironically echoed Gov. Bryan, arguing that his state’s coastline should not become “the dumping ground for every state in the region.”
In 1986, Philadelphia was dumping its waste incinerator ash in Ohio, but local opposition forced the city to terminate that arrangement. That year, the City of Brotherly Love dumped 4,000 tons of incinerator ash on a Haitian beach, where it sat for more than 10 years polluting the local environment and causing myriad public health problems. A year later, the infamous garbage barge from Islip, Long Island in New York, sailed down the east coast looking for a site to unload.
Our highways are becoming clogged with vehicles carrying increasingly deadly wastes. One study estimated that more than 1.5 billion tons of hazardous wastes are moved each year, more than half by truck.
The increasing monopolization and economic hegemony of the trash handling industry is another aspect of waste imperialism. During the last three decades, the waste hauling and disposal industry has undergone considerable consolidation. When competition disappears, the consolidators will raise prices, gouging local government agencies and businesses. In fact, just one year after merging with a competitor, Waste Management Inc., one of the country’s two controlling waste industry interests, increased its landfill tip fees 40% to 138%.
Industry giants can impact elections with their campaign contributions and, as a result, legislation that affects them. Consider the case of Virginia. Between 1997 and 2000, the trash industry donated nearly $400,000 to Virginia candidates. During the same period, bills that would have stunted the trash industry’s growth died in the Virginia legislature, while bills to protect its markets became law. In 1999, out-of-state garbage flowing to Virginia increased by 43% as compared to the previous year.
Waste imperialism diminishes democratic local ownership and control of valuable discarded materials. Unchecked waste exportation and corporate mergers are hampering recycling and waste reduction progress, promoting the interstate transportation of waste, tightening already slim municipal budgets, and sounding the death knell for recycling-based community development and localism in the solid waste sector. At the same time, judicial and regulatory decisions (e.g., application of the constitutional commerce clause in the Carbone case) are restricting local authority and eroding citizen participation in waste management decisions.
Communities that seek legal relief from waste imperialism meet with little success. The right of localities to protect their citizens, the courts have maintained, is outweighed by the constitutional right of commerce to move freely across state boundaries. West Virginia tried to charge higher fees for waste dumped from other states. Pennsylvania tried to require that no more than 30% of waste landfilled could be from another state. Wisconsin tried to have all waste flowing into the state meet its state recycling requirements. Virginia tried to ban garbage shipments by barge and cap the capacity of the state’s seven giant private landfills at 1998 levels. All these state laws have been struck down by higher courts. The U.S. Congress has the power to act. Federal judges have consistently ruled that based on the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, Congress has exclusive power over the interstate trash business
Waste wars stem from our refusal to take responsibility for our own wastes. They will end when we force ourselves to take that responsibility. No longer would we spend considerable financial, political and scientific resources to discover safe ways to move our wastes far away. Instead, we would first look for ways to reduce waste and recycle the ones we must produce into useful products.
But innovative solutions will never be implemented if we can pursue the easier path of shipping our problems to someone else’s backyard.
Waste Imperialism: Resources
Fighting Waste Industry Consolidation with Local Ownership of Recycling Facilities
ILSR Facts to Act On, #42, November 8, 2002
This Facts to Act On examines how recycling — and local or public ownership of recycling facilities in particular — is a key to breaking the pending monopolization of the waste industry. Recycling is not only an environmental strategy, but also a strategy for nurturing competition and keeping discard management costs low.
The Center for a Competitive Waste Industry is dedicated to the protection of a competitive market for waste services. It conducts research on the impact of concentration on prices charged for waste services and on the ability of the public to expand recycling. It also investigates possible collusive conduct and helps coordinate the efforts of those interested in protecting competitive markets for waste services. The Center’s Web site has many excellent publications and links.
Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia is a groundbreaking report detailing the export of electronic waste to Asia and its devastating impact on the environment and public health. This report was released February 2002 by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Basel Action Network, Toxics Link (India), and SCOPE (Pakistan).
The Project Return to Sender web site chronicles the ongoing saga and impact of 4,000 tons of Philadelphia waste incinerator ash. In 1986, the ash was dumped on Haiti’s beaches. There, cadmium and lead — two metals present in the ash — contributed to local public health problems (such as neurological damage, lung and bone disorders, and birth defects). Samples of adjacent soil showed the toxics had migrated into the environment. For more than 10 years the ash remained there, polluting the environment. On April 5, 2000, the ash finally left Haiti, but its final resting place is still undetermined. The ash remains in storage barges off the coast of Florida.
Trashing Transport: Strategies to Ban Imported Garbage
ILSR’s Facts to Act On #17, February 8, 1991
Analyzes the legal problems in various states of keeping garbage out of other jurisdictions. Includes contact list for key states, a list of selected leading cases, and legal references. (Refer to Facts to Act On #28 for related information).
Fighting for Control of Local Garbage Resources
ILSR’s Facts to Act On #2, April 27, 1990
Lists four approaches that communities can take to preserve control of the recycling process, and provides contacts at community-based companies.
Article by David Morris, Institute for Local Self-Reliance Published in the Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1987
This 1987 article is still relevant today. It proposes an innovative solution to the waste wars: federal and state legislation to require that all wastes be disposed of within 10 miles of their generation. David Morris argues that such legislation “would significantly improve decision making by imposing the costs as well as the benefits of commerce on the same community.” Communities and businesses would be forced to seek lasting solutions to the waste disposal problem. Instead of expending financial, political and scientific resources to discover safe ways to move our wastes far away, we would focus on ways to reduce waste and recycle the ones we must produce into useful products.