Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Why Michigan? A portrait of a landfill town and state

I wrote previously about the waste and trash imported by Michigan from Canada. Much of this waste is taken to landfills around Detroit, but there are other landfill sites in the state, too! The State of Michigan has approximately 80 landfill sites, spread almost uniformly across the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, but with a slightly higher density around the Metro Detroit area. You can find here the map I'm looking at right now. Red circles show places where "Type II municipal solid waste (MSW)" is taken, and blue triangles show where "Type III MSW" is taken. Type II waste sites take household wastes and friable asbestos, and Type III sites take construction and demolition wastes.

Of the places that Canadian, specifically from Ontario, waste is shipped to, it seems like a lot of it goes to Carleton Farms Landfill, in New Boston, MI, just west of Detroit in Sumpter Township. According to this website, which is a collaboration between the Michigan Canadian Studies Roundtable, the Michigan State University Canadian Studies Center, and the MSU Libraries, Carleton Farms ranks high in trash volume taken in (at least until 2005). I decided to look into Carleton Farms, the company that runs the landfill site, and Sumpter Township.

Carleton Farms Landfill has an area of 664 acres with a solid waste boundary of 388 acres. It is owned by Republic Services Inc., and holds about 10% of Michigan's total waste, and at least until 2007, 100% of the waste of the City of Toronto. It is located right next to Crosswinds Marsh Preserve. The landfill accepts waste from several counties in the State of Michigan, as well as the States of Florida, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. The landfill is run by Republic Services, Inc., which is the second largest waste management company in the US, behind Waste Management, Inc.
It is interesting to note that Bill Gates owns a 15% stake in Republic Services, Inc., and Warren Buffet owns about 3%. It seems like the company has a pretty poor environmental track record, with several high-profile fines being levied against it by the US EPA. In 2003, Sumpter Township got paid $2-3 million of the $39 million that the City of Toronto paid Republic Services to haul all of its trash away. Apparently, the rest is split down the middle between Republic Services and the trash haulers. This $2-3 million forms (or formed) approximately 40% of the budget of Sumpter Township, making the Township totally reliant on the existence and operation of the landfill.

How did Sumpter Township end up with a lot of trash, in particular Canadian trash? Pierre BĂ©langer discusses this in his article here, which is fascinating enough that I want to copy-paste what he wrote:

"In December 31, 2002, Canada's largest municipal solid waste facility, the Keele Valley Landfill, received its last shipment of garbage from the city of Toronto. After 20 years of contentious operation, the closure of the site was celebrated by the town of Vaughan with a big party where thousands of locals turned up for fireworks, and for what would become a new picturesque park and an 18-hole Scottish-style golf course. After a decade of site studies, community consultations and conservative environmental politics that failed to find a solution to the GTA's waste disposal problem (think about the Adams Mine site near Kirkland Lake for example), garbage eventually began flowing south across the Canada-US border. In fact, America's third-largest importer of trash in the US next to Pennsylvania and Virginia was more than happy to pick up the slack. Recalibrating the laws of supply and demand, Michigan capitalized on the huge capacity of its landfills to essentially become a magnet for all the solid waste in the Great Lakes Region.

By the early 1990s, America's largest waste handlers were, not surprisingly, totally prepared for the imminent garbage crisis in big cities. When strict new environmental standards--such as the infamous Subtitle D Regulations--were enacted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 1991, small landfill operators were unable to sustain the capital investment required for engineering upgrades and simply shut down. The impact of this legislative vise-grip was so significant that from 1990 to 2000, the number of landfills in the US plummeted from over 10,000 to under 2,600. Exacerbated by the closure of the world's largest dump in 2002, New York City's Fresh Kills Landfill, the drop immediately created the perception that there was a lack of airspace--a logistical term that defines the maximum filling capacity of a site--throughout the country catalyzing an unprecedented reorganization of the municipal solid waste industry, especially on the Eastern Seaboard. Forced to radically consolidate their operations, large waste management corporations (Allied, Onyx, WMI and Republic known as the "Big Four") created supersize landfills to essentially achieve greater economies of scale. Seeking solid waste disposal contracts from neighbouring municipalities, most companies look beyond their borders for new waste streams to offset the rising costs of capital infrastructure. Like New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois, Ontario suddenly became Michigan's best friend. At the centre of this wasteshed--the region defined by garbage flows--are two of the largest waste handlers in North America that opened their gates to Ontario's waste with two megasize landfills ironically named Carleton Farms and Pine Tree Acres. From the air, the sheer magnitude of their operations is staggering: receiving approximately one tractor trailer every three minutes thanks to rapid-fire turnaround times and GPS-guided bulldozers, every single part of the process is optimized on a time-cost basis; nothing is wasted. By 2025, the size of these two landfills alone will cover an equivalent area of two square miles under a perfectly graded, 300-foot pyramid of garbage.

The rise of Michigan to the top of the garbage empire is both natural and predictable. Five advantages underlie its supremacy. The first is geology: Michigan is endowed with a thick, practically impervious layer of Devonian clay that covers almost the entire state, an advantage its northern and eastern neighbours, with their fractured bedrock, do not share. The second is location: Michigan is at the geographic centre of the Great Lakes Region, bordering on four states and the province of Ontario. Operators throughout the state capitalize on this proximity by situating large landfills as close as possible to the state borders. The third is scale: an abundance of airspace and the streamlining of operations have given the state a competitive edge, with rock-bottom landfilling prices. Dumping in Ontario was about US$100 a ton in 2006, compared to a cost in Michigan of about US$10. The fourth is NAFTA: like the 50,000 tons of hazardous waste (combustible fuels, bio-medical waste and low-level radioactive waste) exported from the US to Canada every year, garbage is considered a primary commodity and is protected by the North American Free Trade Agreement: state governments do not have the authority to halt the stream of garbage. The fifth advantage is the law concerning future use: operators in Michigan are only required to maintain landfills for 30 years after closure whereas in Canada, landfills must be maintained and monitored for at least a century, and in some cases, forever. All told, two-thirds of the more than 5 million cubic metres of waste that were shipped to the Midwestern United States in 2002--enough to fill a football stadium--originated from the province of Ontario. Compounded by a blaze that shut down the new pelletization plant at Toronto's Ashbridge's Bay Treatment Plant on August 22, 2003, the total figure has now jumped to over 11 million cubic metres of waste plus a 150,000-ton sludge surplus exported annually to a variety of landfills across the US-Canada border, en route to the Great Lake State."

Despite Michigan's predisposition to landfilling, the transboundary movement of waste along what is recognized as the longest, most undisputed border in the world has its opponents. Responding to public pressure, Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow have joined forces with Congressman John D. Dingell to end the legacy of what they call "Michigan as the dumping ground for ever-increasing amounts of Canadian trash," putting into question the foundations of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But for landfill operators like Norm Folson, site manager at the Pine Tree Acres Landfill in northeast Detroit, living in a state with the second-highest rate of unemployment next to Mississippi, yields a radically different view: 'We love Canadian garbage. Tipping fees pay our salaries and pave our roads. Besides, Canadian garbage is really easy to compact because it's really dry. It's dry because Canadians compost almost everything. To us, Canadian garbage is like gold.'"

An aerial view of Carleton Farms Landfill


  1. Really great info - very useful. DO you have any idea how many of the landfills in Michigan are state- or city-owned, versus the private ones (WM, etc.)? Thanks!!!

  2. I drive past a dozen or more semi-trucks loaded with smelly waste from Canada parked on the I275-Will Carleton Road exit every morning waiting for the Carlton Farm dump. VERY EMBARRASING as I have to lay on my horn as some of the trucks sit half on the exit ramp and half on the shoulder. Did I mention the stench. And to mention the Canadian Semi that lost it's NASTY black tar compost out of the back of a truck from an unlocked tail gate onto Telegraph road a few years back.
    As soon as I retire I will not live in Michigan but maybe goto a State or maybe Canada where I can send my trash away. I did mention the stench right.