Seventeen (17) years ago, the State Legislature banned yard waste from landfills. The public was impatient with the growing number and size of dumps in their townships. There were examples of water contamination, air pollution, and the resulting negative economic effects to their neighborhoods. People were becoming aware of the value of returning organics back into the soil. Lawmakers took heed and banned dumping of yard waste in landfills to save space and encourage composting.
The strategy worked — too well for some. During the past 17 years, we increased dumping of many materials (including paper and electronics) — but not as much as the landfill owners would have liked! Landfills make money from dumping fees. They could have been making more money on tipping fees if they got our grass, brush, and leaves.
The good news is that their loss was our state’s gain. Many local small businesses sprang from the ground to handle composting ( Det News, 12/21/09). They started hiring employees because so many people wanted to buy the local compost. Businesses expanded to produce and sell composting bins, shovels, how-to manuals, etc. Many began composting as a family project, to save money, and/or to avoid the harm caused by peat harvesting here and in Canada. These have not become global powerhouses, but the owners and operators live and spend their profits in Michigan and they have provided stable jobs that cannot be outsourced.
The landfill industry and their wealthiest associates have started lobbying our state politicians to get the yard waste back into the waste stream. They have started a deceptive media campaign ironically using a green theme. They are asking to have the yard waste ban lifted and in exchange for creating extra methane, they will try to get some “renewable energy.” ( Det Free Press, 01/02/10)
Some municipalities charge user fees or purchase of leaf bags. They want us to believe that those costs are higher than the taxes we will pay for federal subsidizing of their methane-conversion plant. They want us to forget that most people who pay municipal yard waste costs do so for the convenience of residents who don’t want to be bothered with composting themselves.
They want us to forget that landfills will still charge the public for each new ton of yard waste hauled and then dumped. They especially want us to forget the nuisance created from large-scale methane operations. They want us to forget that their gain would come at the cost to our beautiful state.
Bad for Clinton County
Clinton County hosts 2 landfills — a disproportionate number given the County’s population. Our past leadership allowed us to become the garbage dump of mid-Michigan. People driving northbound on US-27 wrinkle their noses shortly after crossing Lake Lansing Road. Drivers entering Clinton County on I-96 at the north-east end will occasionally get a big awful whiff of the Landfill in Grand Ledge. Now the County residents are also downwind of a garbage incinerator at the airport.
Still, I initially had a positive first impression with a methane-to-energy plant. It sounded like a plan to address both the pile-up of waste we are creating and our over-reliance on fossil fuels. I appreciate our local attempt to make the best of the situation through Granger’s current methane-to-energy plant on Wood Road.
However, Methane is a byproduct of decomposing organic matter and it reeks. It isn’t something you want nearby when you are trying to sell a house or attract new businesses to the area. The stench from a regular dump is incredible even when well-managed. Some days, picking up my son at Bath Elementary school includes methane-mixed odors from the Dewitt landfill located 4 miles away.
But there are better solutions
I know the landfill industry has lost revenue from the yard-waste dumping ban and mandates to reduce imports of trash from Canada. However, their tipping fees are still lower than most, which is why garbage is trucked into Michigan from other states. The time of quick-fixes is ending, but perhaps we should consider raising Michigan’s tipping fees.
There are better projects for state and federal government green-energy investments.
“Instead of generating carbon dioxide as the yard waste breaks down in the open air, when mixed with waste in landfills the leaves and grass clippings will generate large amounts of methane, 23 times more potent as a greenhouse gas, and the legislation would require only 70% of the total landfill methane to be captured.” (Sustainablog, 2010)
The public investment costs and smell of creating new methane facilities are not worth it. I’d prefer our governments work with Granger and Waste Management Corporation to find ways to invest in new economies. For example, I’d love to see an honest examination of extended-producer-responsibility (EPR)/source-costing. This could provide more revenue to landfill operators, even providing market incentives for products made or recycled in the area. If the Michigan legislature instead extended deposit fees on additional product packaging, some of that could go towards growing Granger’s operations. Or how about just helping connect small and medium-sized farmers and greenhouses to composted yard-waste (MSU Report, 2005).
Regardless, moving yard waste back into the trash stream is not the responsible way to address one industry’s desires. It’s short-term, last-century thinking.