Writing in praise of landfills is not the easiest way to win friends and influence people. Indeed, most people wouldn’t believe that dumping is the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly form of solid waste management going. But not only have landfill technologies improved over the years, making them safer, owners have figured out how to put more trash into less space.
Still, landfills have a rotten image. People worry they create health risks for surrounding areas. Some believe we’ll eventually run out of space for our rubbish. Others argue mandatory recycling programs do a better job of protecting limited resources and are cleaner for the environment. And those perceptions are precisely how the N.C. General Assembly was able to pass the Solid Waste Management Act of 2007—a bill that will tax, regulate and otherwise stifle the waste management industry in our state.
But is any of it true? Misperceptions, it seems, have led to bad public policy. Allow me to dispel a few pervasive myths about landfills and recycling, and then perhaps shed some light on how bad this new law really is.
1) We’ll be buried in trash. According to environmental economist Daniel K. Benjamin, “Ted Turner’s flying D ranch outside Bozeman, Montana, could handle all of America’s trash for the next century—with 50,000 acres left over for his bison.” Of course, trash deposited closer to its point-of-origin will lower transportation costs and make our trash even more diffuse, nationwide. But the point is: we shouldn’t worry about space. There’s plenty—particularly in rural North Carolina where people are looking for new industries to replace a dwindling agricultural sector.
2) Landfills poison people. Ironically, not even the EPA sees fit to regulate municipal solid waste disposal. Indeed, according to 30-year EPA veteran David Schnare: “EPA regulates the toxic stuff through its hazardous waste disposal regulations. Municipal waste isn’t hazardous, and the only regulations that apply are siting, construction and air emissions regulations for methane. The EPA doesn’t regulate risks from these sites because the risks, if any, are undeserving of regulation.”
In fact, the risks to your health by a landfill are so low that, according to environmental expert Lynn Scarlet: “Even without new improvements, the [EPA] estimates that the aggregate risk from all operating municipal solid waste landfills in the United States is one cancer death every 23 years.” Put into perspective: more than 550,000 Americans die each year from cancer. Given strict regulations and the advent of high-density polyethylene and geotextile technologies, modern landfills are able to contain leachate (the only landfill pollutant) very effectively. In short, you have a greater chance of being hit by a recycling truck than being harmed by a landfill.
3) Recycling is more eco-friendly than landfills. Which pollution? What resources are you trying to conserve? Mandatory recycling programs are a manufacturing process just like anything else. The trouble is municipalities have fewer incentives to conserve resources associated with said process. Indeed, most cities require twice the number of diesel-and-carbon-spewing trucks to collect recyclable materials separate from the trash. So it’s not so much that you’re conserving energy or resources, it’s that you’re simply displacing the kind of resources being consumed and the type of pollution being emitted (e.g. When you add a recycling program, you double the fleet-wide petroleum usage; double the materials used to manufacture the trucks; and increase energy used to make the recyclables usable again, etc.) Nevermind that recycling can be a hassle at home.
Here’s a paradox: the more paper we consume, the more trees there are. That’s because paper companies have an incentive to plant more trees when we buy and discard their products. And yet people seem hell-bent on recycling newsprint and cardboard. So maybe we rescue a few aluminum cans with all of our effort. But the latest check on aluminum prices suggests we’re nowhere near a price peak. Might we be using vital resources to conserve other more abundant resources? The economics of recycling says yes.
The effects of this N.C. landfill bill will be mostly bad. The truth is North Carolina counties and private concerns will have a tough time navigating these draconian regulations, taxes ($2 a ton) and permit fees to build any new landfills. Other states will get our waste business and we’ll get higher transportation and environmental costs as we ship our trash to them. In other words, since landfills are the cheapest and most environmental means of solid waste disposal, we’ll not only pay more for everything we dump, we’ll forgo waste disposal jobs and have polluting trash trucks traveling farther. While rich piedmont North Carolinians may have a full blown case of NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) syndrome, there might be some N.C. counties that would welcome the business. Meanwhile, Virginia is licking its chops.