April 22, 2010 | General

Commentary: Talking Trash (Transport)

BioCycle April 2010, Vol. 51, No. 4, p. 61
Vivian E. Thomson

My students at the University of Virginia know me as the professor who talks trash. To be more precise, I wrote a book, Garbage In, Garbage Out: Solving the Problems with Long-Distance Trash Transport (University of Virginia Press, 2009), about the long distance transport of garbage.
Before undertaking this book I had been working as a policy practitioner on garbage- or air pollution-related issues for over 20 years. What drew me to the subject of trash transport is that it confronts the exercise of economic and political power. While virtually all forms of pollution travel, most move with natural forces like wind or water currents. By contrast, the movement of garbage is under human control. Further, the movement of garbage is inextricably intertwined with the following: impacts on people and on the natural environment; political choices at the state, national and local levels; decisions made in markets; and, race and class.
The Congress has entertained bills that would allow states or local governments to constrain the movement of trash. Although our national politicians have been preoccupied recently with more pressing concerns than garbage, 159 transport-related bills were introduced between the 101st (1989-90) and 110th (2007-08) Congresses. In Garbage In, Garbage Out, I ask, do those legislative proposals address our most critical garbage-related policy problems?
Trash transport across state lines rose by 147 percent between 1995 and 2005. This trend has sparked criticism on the grounds that not only are we dumping more of our garbage in someone else’s backyard, we’re transporting that trash much farther than before. States and local governments have battled each other in the courts and in the media in a series of garbage wars.
For example, in the late 1990s then-Governor Gilmore and the Virginia General Assembly tried to block the import of out-of-state garbage. When New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani suggested that Virginians and New Yorkers exist in a reciprocal relationship, with New York offering culture and Virginia offering landfill space, one Virginia reporter retorted that Virginians should barge their prostitutes to New York, “in the spirit of letting each place do what it does best.”
The more I taught my University of Virginia students about trash and its transport, the more I wondered if Congress was missing the mark by ignoring questions like, do we make too much trash? Do minority and low-income communities bear the brunt of garbage disposal and if so, what policies should be adopted to address those inequities? What’s being done about new problems like e-waste? And, how can we reconcile the often divergent – but often equally legitimate – interests of state and local governments?
Garbage In, Garbage Out starts by exploring the environmental, economic, political and judicial factors that landed trash transport on Congress’s agenda. I describe the pollution problems associated with trash management and set forth the interlocking roles of federal, state and local governments in managing trash. I explain the “dormant Commerce Clause” and its role in garbage transport debates and in court decisions, including the 2007 Supreme Court decision concerning the flow control ordinances enacted in Oneida and Herkimer Counties, New York.
Legislative proposals introduced in the Congress have implicitly assumed that the problem to be solved is waste transport across state or local government borders. However, one might ask, are we transporting garbage like never before in part because we make too much of it? The book explores at some length the question of whether Americans are wasteful by comparison with the Japanese and Europeans. This exploration is both theoretical and empirical.
Interwoven with this discussion about waste generation levels are examples of waste diversion strategies in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. I describe the ways governments in Japan and the European Union have embraced the principles of proximity (i.e., disposing of waste close to its point of origin), self-sufficiency (i.e., taking care of our own trash rather than sending it to another political jurisdiction), pollution prevention, and producer responsibility.
A key chapter in the book explores how environmental justice considerations factor into the trash transport policy arena. I examine the empirical basis for claims that landfills disproportionately burden minority and/or low-income areas. These issues have been front and center in Virginia, where counties with 10 percent of the state’s population host 10 mega landfills that manage waste equal to 90 percent of that generated by the entire state.
Naturally, Congressional proposals take center stage in the book. Some bills would have strengthened local governments’ ability to enact “flow control” ordinances, which capture trash and direct it to specific local facilities. Other bills would have focused at the state level, permitting state governments to impede the import of trash across their borders.
My conclusion from this multifaceted analysis is that the policy problems are much broader than members of Congress have envisioned. I recommend modest policy solutions that may: encourage waste diversion and reduction; discourage long-distance trash transport; protect potential or actual landfill host communities; and, provide funding for the environmental damage that will accrue to current and future generations.
Garbage In, Garbage Out concludes that as a nation we must take greater responsibility for the amount of trash we generate and for its environmental fate. We should establish a national program for waste diversion and reduction; regulate nationally the disposal of hazardous components in our trash like e-waste; allow states to set “escalator” taxes based on the distance over which trash is transported into (or within) their borders; establish new political safeguards for communities that might accept – or have accepted – waste facilities and write federal guidelines for appropriate compensation for those same communities; tax garbage (a disincentive to its production) and redistribute those funds to state and local governments for environmental protection or clean-up; and adopt a U.S.- appropriate version of the proximity principle. In so doing, we will solve the real problems with long-distance trash transport.

Vivian E. Thomson is Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, where she teaches environmental policy in the Departments of Environmental Sciences and Politics and where she directs the interdisciplinary Environmental Thought and Practice BA program. Garbage In, Garbage Out is a finalist in the Southern Environmental Law Center’s 2010 Reed writing competition.

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