NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) – As US cities struggle to rein in garbage while propping up pricey recycling efforts, more companies are profiting from America’s growing waste problem and leaving local communities to face the environmental consequences.
At 4.9 pounds (2.2kg) of trash per person, per day, the US is the most wasteful country on the planet.
Of the 292.4 million tons of refuse Americans generated in 2018, half was buried in landfills while another 32 per cent was recycled or composted, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The rest was burned (the preferred term being “combusted”) to generate electricity.
Before 1970, the US dealt with its trash by dumping it in open pits. But in 1976, waste management fundamentally changed, thanks to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. That law created disposal standards for solid and hazardous waste, bolstered recycling programmes and mandated landfills install better protection against seepage into the surrounding environment.
Over the past three decades, the rate of US recycling and composting has more than doubled. Combusting has become a key (yet hardly climate friendly) waste management method.
During that same period, however, the number of available landfills shrunk by about 74 per cent, according to Stifel Financial Corp analyst Michael Hoffman. Amid growing costs to operate, maintain, and expand local landfills, waste management shifted away from small municipal dumps to large, privately-controlled regional sites.
Private companies now own more than half of the 1,280 remaining US landfills, Mr Hoffman said, effectively controlling 75 per cent of all garbage disposed in the US. Meanwhile, of the remaining 580 landfills owned by municipalities, 300 will close over the next decade as they reach capacity.
But waste generation isn’t slowing down. And as the overall number of landfills shrinks, those still operating will continue to balloon in size, creating more environmental stress for neighbouring communities.
Garbage now fuels a US$67 billion (S$89.27 billion) industry across the US, Stifel estimates. Waste firms make money from removal contracts with municipalities, and fees they charge companies to bury their trash in landfills. These days, it’s not just garbage that ends up there.
Since China stopped importing US recyclables in 2017, cities have been scrambling to find new markets for plastics and other materials that would typically be repurposed, saidMr Mike Ewall, a Philadelphia-based environmental activist and executive director of the Energy Justice Network.
For many urban centres, recycling just became too expensive. “It sent the whole market into a tailspin,” he said. “Until our domestic recycling system catches up, there’s just nowhere for plastics to go.”
Mr Steven Changaris, a vice-president at the National Waste and Recycling Association, an industry lobby, said some cities have scaled back collection or stopped recycling altogether. Add to that a steady increase in waste generation, and you start running out of space. “It’s had a tremendous impact,” he said.
As a result, more companies are capitalising on the need to haul that garbage away. In doing so, more of it is moving across state lines to landfills or incinerators in communities that want no part of it.
Burying waste in Maine
In 2019, Maine’s waste generation increased 2.5 per cent to more than 1.8 million tons compared with the year prior, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. But hundreds of thousands of tons of additional waste arrived from other states, dumped at the Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town, a few miles north-east of Bangor.
Spread over 179 acres, the state-owned landfill looms over the Penobscot Nation, an indigenous reservation located on an island at the stem of the Penobscot River. It’s been the cornerstone of tribal life for the small community of 500 people.
“Archeologists tell us we’ve been in the watershed for over 10,000 years,” said Mr John Banks, natural resources director for the tribe. The river isn’t only a recreational gathering place, rich in cultural traditions for the tribe; it’s also a source for medicinal plants, sustenance fishing, hunting and trapping, he said.
For decades, the Penobscot Nation has been raising the alarm about rising contamination. The amount of waste going to Juniper Ridge has increased about 31 per cent since 2012, according to the Maine DEP.
“Many consider it sacred and our source of life. It’s our homeland.” Now, Mr Banks said, “we’ve become the dumping ground for other states.”
“The issue is it’s all perfectly legal,” said Ms Sarah Nichols, a programme director with environmental non-profit Natural Resources Council of Maine.
The state acquired Juniper Ridge in 2004 in order to preserve landfill capacity for waste generated by its citizens. In Maine, it is generally illegal to dump imported waste into state-owned landfills. However, Ms Nichols said that due to a loophole in Maine’s waste regulations, out-of-state trash funnelled through local processing facilities gets classified as Maine-generated waste.
Those facilities “recycle and recover” waste for contractors, property management companies and homeowners, dumping whatever can’t be recycled into landfills. The majority of the waste is construction and demolition debris, which has been banned from disposal in other New England states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
One such company is ReEnergy Resources, which has a processing facility in Lewiston, Maine. More than 90 per cent of the 230,000 tons of construction waste ReEnergy accepted in 2019 came from out-of-state, according to its annual report. After processing, ReEnergy said it sent 93 per cent of the imported trash to the Juniper Ridge landfill, which while owned by the state is operated by a private company, New England Waste Service of Maine, a subsidiary of Casella Waste Systems.
Casella collects a “tipping fee” from ReEnergy for taking its waste. Fees for construction and demolition debris vary, but range from US$33 to US$95 per ton, according to the state’s environmental agency. ReEnergy didn’t return emails or calls seeking comment.
Exacerbating the concerns of local residents isn’t just what’s going into landfills, but what’s coming out.
According to Ms Nichols, garbage imported for disposal contributes to leachate, a liquid that forms when rain water filters through garbage. The result is a toxic soup that can include mercury, arsenic and lead.
The National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences has found that the leachate is also a source of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals,” found in consumer products like cookware or food packaging. Studies by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reveal that exposure to PFAS chemicals is linked to health risks including decreased fertility, developmental problems in children and kidney and testicular cancer.
EPA Administrator-designate Michael Regan told a US Senate committee earlier this month the agency would make regulation for PFAS chemicals “a top priority” during the Biden administration.
Maine doesn’t test leachate for PFAS levels at commercial or state-owned landfills like Juniper Ridge, Ms Nichols said, leaving the Penobscot tribe in the dark about the level of toxicity of the leachate being discharged into the river. The Maine DEP didn’t reply to requests for comment.
In 2016, local non-profit environmental groups completed a US$30 million restoration initiative for the river, a project Mr Banks called “one of the most successful efforts to improve the ecological integrity of the Penobscot Nation’s homeland.” But under the shadow of the landfill, hopes the project would lead to a cleaner river are diminishing.
“It’s a huge blister on the face of the earth that’s just waiting to explode,” Mr Banks said of the massive landfill. “The whole region gets its drinking water from the aquifer that is directly underneath this landfill. When that thing leaks, it’s not just the tribe that’s going to be suffering.”
In its 2019 annual report, Rutland, Vermont-based Casella said that leachate generated at its landfills and transfer stations is “tested on a regular basis,” but added that the toxic compound is generally “not regulated as a hazardous waste under federal law.”
Landfills typically apply liners, or barriers made of plastic or clay, to prevent toxin from leaking out. Most states require a two-liner system, but Maine only requires one, said Mr Peter Blair, an attorney with environmental non-profit Conservation Law Foundation.
“All landfills eventually have leachate seep out once liners start to disintegrate,” he said. “It’s not a matter of if it will leak, but rather when.”
Leachate that’s collected from the Juniper Ridge landfill is taken to a wastewater treatment plant, where Dr Jean MacRae, an associate professor in the Civil & Environmental Engineering department at the University of Maine, said “a majority” of the toxic matter can be treated to remove pollutants.
“Stuff still gets through, and it’s ultimately discharged into the river where it gets absorbed by fish,” she said.