Who are you dumping your garbage on? In 2005 over 42 million tons of MSW crossed at least one state line before it was disposed of. That represents 17% of all MSW generated in the US that year. This trade has only been on the rise, more than tripling since the 90s. Currently, trash trade among states represents a $4 billion dollar industry.
Why move trash rather than just dispose of it at the nearest landfill? One paper I read explains it this way: it costs only 10-15¢ to move 1 ton of garbage 1 mile. Some states have significantly lower tipping fees (the amount charged to accept garbage at a disposal site) than others, ranging from less than $19 in Alabama and Idaho, to over $100 in Vermont and Massachusetts. Overall, fees are cheapest in the South and Midwest, and most expensive in the Northeast. Low transportation costs mean that it can often be cheaper to ship waste to states with lower tipping fees than to dispose of it locally. “Thus, for example, trucking twenty tons of trash from Trenton to Pittsburgh would save the shipper $1,000 in tipping fees at a cost of $400 in trucking charges, yielding a profit of $600” (cited from this article). A prime example of the trash trade is New York City – the city has no space around itself for dumping and all of its waste must be exported. In that case, the question is simply: where can we get rid of it cheapest? At the end of the day, it’s all about location, location, location.
Some states work to market themselves as trash importers. One article about Alabama reports that the state has the lowest landfill tipping fees in the country. In addition, the state is moving towards ‘mega landfills.’ Together, Alabama’s landfills are permitted to receive 19 million tons of garbage annually, nearly 5x what is produced in the state.
Many activist groups in states that actively import trash have raised concerns that they will become ‘dumping grounds’ for other states’ trash; indeed, it is typically more economically depressed states that import the most garbage. Most of these protests have little power as the Interstate Commerce Clause in the Constitution prohibits any state enacting a total ban on the importation of waste. Still, states do have some mechanisms to control trash flow by raising or lowering tipping fees and landfill permits, among other things.
Trash is an interesting commodity – something everyone has and no one wants (unless of course it makes you money). But how did we get into a system where it is cheaper to dump New York’s trash in Ohio than it is to keep it in-state? Who are you dumping your trash on?
Below I’ve listed the top 10 trash importing and exporting states.
Top 10 Net Trash Exporters:
#1: New York: 6.8 million tons
#2: New Jersey: 4.2 million tons
#3: Illinois: 3.1 million tons
#4-#10: Missouri, Maryland, Ontario (Canada), California, North Carolina, Ohio, Massachusetts
Top 10 Net Trash Importers
#1: Pennsylvania is by far the largest importer of trash, importing nearly 10 million tons of MSW and other waste annually.
#2: Virginia: 5.7 million tons.
#3: Michigan: 5.4 million tons
#4-#10: Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Oregon, Wisconsin, South Carolina, New Jersey
(* Credit for the featured image at the top of this post: Repa, Edward. National Solid Waste Management Association. (2005). “Interstate Movement of Municipal Solid Waste.”)