Out of Sight, out of Mind: Cross-Border Traffic in Waste Obscures the Problem of Consumption

By Clapp, Jennifer; Princen, Thomas | Alternatives Journal, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Out of Sight, out of Mind: Cross-Border Traffic in Waste Obscures the Problem of Consumption


Clapp, Jennifer, Princen, Thomas, Alternatives Journal


AS TWO researchers on either side of the Canada-US border, we prefer to exchange ideas. But lately we've been exchanging waste products, however unwittingly.

Toronto began to export its municipal garbage to Michigan on January 1, 2003. The contract with Republic Services, a Florida-based waste management firm, involves a million tonnes of waste per year, transported by 90 to 120 trucks making round-trip journeys to Michigan's Carleton Farms landfill each day.

The tab for Toronto taxpayers? Over $42 million for the next three years. For Michiganders? Difficult to say.

Toronto's garbage crisis solved? Hardly.

On the US side of the border people are furious that Toronto is sending its garbage to Michigan. Legislators there are crafting laws and regulations to address the situation. Some would ban Toronto's waste from ever entering the state. Others would hold up the garbage until it meets the same standards as Michigan garbage. Environmental groups in Michigan have formed a Don't Trash Michigan coalition to protest the imports of foreign waste. One group is even organizing a tourism boycott of Toronto. Calls have been made to halt the trash on the grounds that it may be contaminated with SARS or mad cow disease.

For all the charges and counter-charges, threats and counter-threats, there is remarkable agreement on one thing--that the trash crisis is a "where" problem. Where does the waste end up, and why does it end up there?

Several explanations dominate. Some see it as a legal issue. US laws and the North American Free Trade Agreement allow wastes to be traded as "goods". Waste "goods" are thus as free to cross the border as any other "goods". There is a Canada-US trade agreement on hazardous and municipal waste trade which calls for prior informed consent from the receiving country but even the governor of Michigan has had little success in getting it to apply in this situation. (1)

The waste trade is also an economic issue. Michigan's waste dumping fees are lower than Ontario's as well as most other US states. Waste from across the continent ends up in Michigan.

This seemingly bi-local dispute (Toronto versus Michigan) is actually a global problem. Once rubbish leaves Toronto, all the world is its commercial stage. Shippers and dumpers wait in every port. Disposal sites can be created willy-nilly just about anywhere--or at least, anywhere that nobody will notice or object.

In the US, for example, municipal wastes from New York and San Francisco go by train to a landfill in Utah. Internationally, wastes, including hazardous wastes, are shipped halfway around the world. (2) Indeed Michiganders export hazardous waste to Canada and who-knows-what to other countries.

Solve the flow from Toronto to Michigan, and the garbage will likely make its way to another far-off community.

We call this "distancing", and see it as a big part of the problem. When wastes not only travel long distances, but also cross jurisdictional boundaries, cradle-to-grave accountability is nearly impossible. Garbage passes through a series of intermediaries whose only interest is getting a decent return on investment. As a result, the poor and underrepresented tend to get dumped on. And when things go awry, such as when leachate is detected or a mountain of garbage buries scavengers, taxpayers at the disposal point pay the bills and face the health risks.

The question from our view, then, is not just "where" to dispose of the waste. Instead we ask whether so much of it should be generated in the first place.

This brings us to a second part of the problem: consumption. (3)

Little mention has been made of the consumption issue in the Toronto-Michigan garbage debate. Most participants in the debate have focused on clarifying the legal situation or getting the prices right. But focusing only on the legal and economic aspects of the problem fails to address this underlying issue. …

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