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How much trash does Canada send to Michigan landfills?

Garbage trucks in Michigan
Garbage trucks in Michigan (WDIV)

DETROIT – We received this question through our 4YI form, where you can ask us anything about Metro Detroit and/or Michigan and we will do our best to answer it:

Question:

“I thought Michigan outlawed trash from coming into the state from Canada, but I still see Canadian trash haulers on I-75 down near Brownstown ... ?”

Answer:

First of all, it is completely legal for Michigan to be importing trash from Canada, so you should not be surprised when you see Canadian trash haulers. This has not been outlawed by the state. In fact, trash is a commodity under United States law -- it is protected from restriction both in terms of interstate and international trade under the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

There have been, however, several movements by Michigan officials to either stifle or altogether ban receiving trash from Canada. In 2006, Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm signed legislation that would have banned Canadian and other out-of-country waste if Congress acted to give states the power to do so.

“Senator Stabenow and Senator Levin, together with members of our U.S. House delegation, are fighting hard for us on this issue in Congress, but leadership in Washington has failed to act,” said Granholm at the time. “Until they do, limiting the amount of landfill space and making it less cost effective to ship trash into Michigan are some common sense steps we can take.”

That ban would not take effect until the federal government gave Michigan the authority to take such action. Obviously, that authority has not been given to Michigan or any other state.

Just two years earlier, in 2004, Granholm signed legislation designed to “curb the flow” of trash, specifically from Canada, into Michigan landfills.

There was a decline in trash from Canada to Michigan -- as you’ll notice in the table below -- after a push from Sens. Levin and Stabenow to stop Toronto’s trash flow into the state. The city of Toronto did eventually stop sending its trash to Michigan, but the rest of Ontario has continued.

In 2009 there was another move by Michigan lawmakers to ban trash from Canada. It became a bit of a political circus at the Michigan capital, and it eventually failed. Even if they did pass such a ban, it would have violated the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Canada because, again, trash is considered a commodity.

If you go back further in the trash timeline to the 1990s, you’ll find that Gov. John Engler’s administration helped grow Michigan’s landfill space, which ended up making room for other states, and Canada, to start sending us their trash.

Furthermore, an agreement between the U.S. and Canada reached in 1986 sought to “provide both countries with safe, low cost options for managing waste for which there is either a lack of domestic capacity or the technology to appropriately manage the waste," according to the EPA. That was in reference to what they call “transboundary” movement of hazardous waste. In 1992, the U.S. and Canada amended that agreement to include municipal solid waste (MSW), or garbage.

Long story short, it is written in U.S. and Canada trade agreements that there will be trash -- garbage, waste, refuse, etc. -- exchanged between the countries. Again, I will reiterate: This is possible because the United States considers trash a commodity that is bought and sold.

Michigan, of course, is at the very heart of this matter due to it’s proximity to Canada -- specifically Toronto and the rest of Ontario. The region has a well-document landfills problem.

So Michigan is here to take the trash. Whether people approve of it or not, it’s happening and there has been growth in terms of volume again. According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), as of 2018 the largest source of waste imports to Michigan continued to be from Canada -- 9,770,385 cubic yards of solid waste. According to EGLE, as of 2018 Canadian waste imports equaled about 18.6 percent of all waste disposed in Michigan landfills. Waste reported from other states and Canada totaled about 23.9 percent of all solid waste disposed in Michigan landfills.

The following tables are from the state’s 2018 Report on Solid Waste Landfilled in Michigan, showing the cubic yards of waste imported from Canada and other states since 2009:

Solid waster disposed in Michigan landfills, per the state of Michigan's 2018 Report of Solid Waste Landfilled in Michigan.
Solid waster disposed in Michigan landfills, per the state of Michigan's 2018 Report of Solid Waste Landfilled in Michigan. (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Waste Management and Radiological Protection Division)

As mentioned, there has been plenty of criticism of Michigan’s appetite for Canadian garbage including whether or not the state is charging a high enough fee, along with concerns about the safety of Canada’s garbage coming to the state.

Just a couple of years ago, Gov. Rick Snyder worked to raise the “tipping fee," a much cooler term for landfill dumping fee, from 36 cents per ton to $3.99 per ton -- at one point he wanted it to be raised to $4.75 per ton. His administration wanted to use the money to fund environmental cleanup efforts. The proposal failed in the Republican-controlled legislature in 2018.

For comparison, Ohio collects $4.75 per ton of solid waste delivered to either a transfer or landfill facility. View more about how this compares to other Great Lakes states here: State Funding Mechanisms for Solid Waste Disposal and Recycling Programs in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin (EPA, June 2014).

Meanwhile, in terms of “safety" of Canadian garbage being sold to Michigan, the EPA says that in response to concerns expressed by Michigan elected officials and citizens regarding Canadian MSW shipments, EPA Region 5 conducted a joint project in 2005 with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) -- now known as EGLE.

From the EPA:

“The purpose of the project was to monitor the disposal of Canadian and domestic MSW at eight landfills for compliance with environmental laws and regulations. The eight landfills monitored receive almost all of the Canadian MSW shipments. An EPA contractor conducted weekly, unannounced inspections of incoming foreign and domestic waste loads between March and October 2005. Inspection data indicated no appreciable difference in compliance with environmental regulations between MSW loads imported from Canada and loads generated within Michigan or another state in the United States. A final report detailing this project was issued in June 2006.” -- here is that 2006 report, if you feel so inclined to go through 26 pages of ... garbage. That was released after Gov. Granholm signed her ban in March 2006, to be clear.

This has been a two-way street, mind you: Michigan has been sending waste -- including hazardous waste -- to Canada for decades.

Anyway, the next three figures are from the state of Michigan’s 2018 landfill report, showing how much garbage the state imports from Canada and other states, and which Michigan counties receive the most:

The graph indicates the total volume of waste imported to Michigan by state or country of origin of the waste. This is from the state of Michigan's 2018 Report of Solid Waste Landfilled in Michigan.
The graph indicates the total volume of waste imported to Michigan by state or country of origin of the waste. This is from the state of Michigan's 2018 Report of Solid Waste Landfilled in Michigan. (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Waste Management and Radiological Protection Division)

That’s too much garbage from Ohio, if you ask me.

Here’s how it breaks down by county -- check out Macomb and Wayne counties:

Data per the state of Michigan's 2018 Report of Solid Waste Landfilled in Michigan.
Data per the state of Michigan's 2018 Report of Solid Waste Landfilled in Michigan. (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Waste Management and Radiological Protection Division)
Data per the state of Michigan's 2018 Report of Solid Waste Landfilled in Michigan.
Data per the state of Michigan's 2018 Report of Solid Waste Landfilled in Michigan. (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Waste Management and Radiological Protection Division)

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