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Oakland County landfill concerns



By Stacy Gittleman


Michigan for decades has been the garbage receptacle of the Midwest. That has left Michigan with about a quarter century of space left in its landfills which are regarded by environmental officials as “super emitters” of methane, a seldom mentioned greenhouse gas that is being approached by a new set of state laws that look to harness the gas for energy instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.


To kick out-of-state and Canadian garbage imports to the curb and bolster funding for enhancing recycling and brownfield cleanups, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, in her budget proposal for fiscal year 2025, is calling for an increase in garbage tipping fees from 36 cents to five dollars per ton. This steep hike could raise $80 million annually for cleanup and materials management and recycling to potentially extend the lifespan of Michigan's landfills.


With the sharp rate increase, Whitmer hopes to also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from solid waste and drive economic growth by increasing the tipping fee to competitive parity with neighboring states.


“This will help ensure corporations and out-of-state parties pay their fair share to use state landfills by bringing Michigan in line with other Midwest states,” read the proposal. “This equalization will also increase site readiness and reduce the amount of refuse debris coming into the state.”


Though Whitmer said the proposed FY 2025 budget wouldn't raise taxes, it would impose a 1,288 percent increase in trash fees on local taxpayers. This is raising the ire of organizations such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Waste and Recycling Association (MWRA). They fear the hike will place an undue burden on community institutions such as schools and hospitals and send businesses and industries packing for other states.


As landfill space in the nation shrinks, the cost to dump garbage is going up. More than 30 states already impose some type of fee on the disposal of solid waste. Waste hauling companies in turn can pass on these increases to businesses and residents, though the increase may be so insignificant that it may go unnoticed by residents.


Outside of Michigan, other states are also ruminating per tonnage garbage tipping fee increases. According to Statista.com, the average municipal solid waste landfill tipping fee in the United States increased 8.2 percent in 2022, to $58.47 per ton. Average landfill tipping fees were highest in the Northeast, at $75.92 per ton. Landfill sites are used for the disposal of waste materials such as paper, food and yard trimmings. U.S. landfill sites are regulated by each state’s environmental agency which, in turn, follows the guidelines set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


According to the 2022 report from the Environmental Research and Education Foundation comparing tipping fees across the nation from 348 landfills, the national average is $60.34 per ton. In the Midwest, it averages $70.81 per ton; the South Central region of the country has the cheapest per ton tipping fee average at $44.26 per ton; and the most expensive is in the Northeast at $85.41 per ton.


According to an analysis of state data from New York Focus, an independent nonprofit investigative news outlet, New York in late 2023 proposed raising municipal waste disposal rates from a range of .50 to $13 per ton.


Wisconsin has charged $13 per ton since 2009 and is regarded as one of the highest in the nation. Yet with this high fee, for the last 15 years, Wisconsin has seen the trash it sends to landfills decline by one-third.


Although the Michigan Waste and Recycling Association (MWRA) declined an offer for an interview with Downtown Newsmagazine, in a statement, the organization that represents the state’s businesses and municipalities that provide waste- and recycling-related services said the Whitmer rate hike is “very concerning and would negatively impact all Michiganders.”


The MWRA said Oakland County residents and businesses alone would see an increased cost of $4,928,000 that would have to be dedicated to what it describes as a tax, ultimately going to the state budget rather than staying in their community and will “increase the cost of living and doing business in Michigan.”


The statement read: “At a time when we are looking for ways to improve Michigan’s attractiveness, increasing the trash tax will add cost to every household and business in the state as well as local governments, hospitals, public safety organizations, and school districts, to name a few.” This proposed increase in the state tipping fee will raise the cost of essential services provided to Michigan citizens and businesses.”


The MWRA argued that management of waste materials as it stands now is safe, efficient, affordable and essential to public health and safety, protection of our environment, and ensuring the infrastructure that enables business and economic growth.


“This increased tax is appropriately a passthrough fee, such that the additional expenses (direct and indirect from the fee increase) will ultimately be borne by the users of Michigan disposal facilities – i.e., Michigan citizens and businesses will be covering more than 75 percent of the $80 million budget proposal.”


The MWRA fears that such a steep increase in an essential service would force local governments, hospitals and schools to consider other budget cuts. It would jeopardize the jobs of essential workers like police officers, firefighters, nurses and teachers. This increased tipping fee also has the effect of increasing the potential of “illegal dumping” by making trash collection even more expensive for residents.


The MWRA stated that its members wish to continue to have the resources to provide the communities it works in with off-setting environmental impacts, such as planting micro forests, providing important habitats for native wildlife, and providing tours to local school and community groups to learn about the waste industry.


In early April, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce hosted a coalition to discuss opposition to the potential sharp increase. The chamber said the fee will act more like a burdensome tax that all Michigan residents would shoulder because waste disposal is an essential service used by all residents and businesses, and the reality is that Michigan is a hub of manufacturing. The chamber stated that this tipping fee hike would “disproportionately affect these large manufacturers and energy-intensive industries that have large volume waste disposal, increasing operation costs by thousands of dollars.”


“The proposal to increase the state tipping fee has been proposed for three years in a row now over the last several years, said Mike Alaimo, the chamber’s director of environmental and energy affairs.

Alaimo said the chamber opposes the hike for several reasons. Primarily, he said, the increased costs would disproportionately affect institutions in communities, like hospitals and schools, which Alaimo said, are already struggling with tightened budgets.


Secondly, he said, it would impact heavy industry and their operational budgets. These include steel and cement manufacturers and key third-party suppliers to the automotive industry. Alaimo said these industries cannot avoid creating high volume but low hazardous waste output that wind up in non-hazardous waste landfills.


“There's no ability to reduce the amount of waste that they're producing. And if it hits their operational costs, we are seeing companies predict it will cost them up to millions in extra costs. It can affect business decisions as in how much they want to invest in doing business in this state,” he said.


Alaimo said that the $80 million the hike will generate is still not enough to cover the expense of cleaning up the state’s brownfields.


“The irony of this proposal is that the $80 million is nowhere near enough to cover brownfield cleanup, as those costs are in the billions, not the millions. All the while, we are making it even more expensive to clean up the contaminated sites because a lot of the work involved in cleaning up the sites is that contaminated soil and other waste needs to be put in a landfill.”


Michigan Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Director Philip Roos, in a February 13, 2024 appropriations subcommittee hearing for EGLE before the Michigan House of Representatives, made his case for the FY 2025 budget, including the tipping rate hike.


“Our budget prioritizes clean water, climate action, contaminated and brownfield site clean-ups and redevelopment, improved customer service, and new opportunities for communities,” he stated. “These investments will help protect public health, increase economic opportunity, safeguard drinking water, fight climate change, revitalize communities and reduce pollution across the state.”


Roos said raising the landfill tipping fee to $5 per ton would put Michigan closer to the national average and "remove the big incentive for folks in other states and Canadian provinces to dump their trash in our landfills."


"It's not like we're going out on a limb here," he said. "I don't think it's going to eliminate out-of-state waste, but it's just putting it on a level playing field here so there's not a disproportionate incentive for it to come to our state.”


Roos said revenue raised from the fee increase would be "the centerpiece" of the Whitmer administration’s efforts to clean up more than 24,000 contaminated sites across Michigan.


According to a 2019 EGLE study of the municipal waste sent to landfills in Michigan, 38 percent was organic, including food, yard waste, and compostable paper and packaging which could be diverted for composting; 26 percent was plastics, metals or glass that could have been recycled in a curbside program; and 20 percent was other recyclables like clothing, appliances, scrap metal, electronics, bulky plastics and plastic films.


Only 16 percent were things that truly belonged in a landfill.


According to the Report of Solid Waste Landfilled in Michigan for Fiscal Year 2023, waste from Michigan residents and businesses decreased by 1,882,581.37 tons in 2023. Imported waste decreased by 304,526.90 tons. The total imported solid waste was approximately 21 percent of all waste disposed in Michigan landfills in FY 2023. Canada, the largest out-of-state contributor to Michigan’s landfills, in 2023 contributed 14.88 percent of all waste dumped into the state.


In comparison, 4,519,425.54 tons of waste were hauled into Michigan from other states and Canada compared to 4,823,952.44 tons of waste in 2022.


The report listed that Oakland County in 2023 collected 1,582,416.57 tons of garbage. Of that, 160,109.16 tons went to the Oakland Heights landfill in Auburn Hills, which has two years of space left. The Eagle Valley Waste and Disposal in Lake Orion, with nine years of space left, buried 574,704.37 tons. Of these county numbers, 49.91 tons came from Ohio. Additionally, Oakland County hauled hundreds of thousands of tons of municipal waste to Washtenaw and Genesee counties.


In the report’s executive summary, EGLE Director Philip Roos stated that the numbers reflect the relatively low cost for disposal versus the cost of a more sustainable materials management approach that includes reducing, reusing and recycling materials before the ultimate disposal of any residuals.


The report said the price Michiganders will pay for higher disposal rates versus coming up with ways to manage materials for reuse and recycling have much higher and costlier consequences considering the amount of space left in the state’s remaining landfill space.


The 26-year estimate of remaining landfill space did not factor in projected increases or decreases in waste disposal rates, waste diversion programs or any imposed restrictions. The report’s executive summary said that even modest successes and improvements to the state’s recycling operations can grow landfill capacity beyond a quarter of a century. Margie Ring, state solid waste engineering coordinator for EGLE, pointed to the Waste Management report’s message in its executive summary that stated that elevated costs to create a more sustainable statewide landfills management program to enhance reduction, recycling and reuse operations in the long run will be worthwhile if it can stretch landfill capacity beyond the 26 years of space remaining.


Ring explained the changes have come in the last year with the December 2022 passing of Part 115 of the Solid Waste Management in the state's Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994, PA 451, which went into effect at the end of March 2023.


Among the changes is how counties must plan and account for how and where they will send their garbage once their own landfills reach capacity limits.


“Counties have to report their waste acceptance to EGLE regularly because of the surcharge that they pay,” Ring explained. “In the old process, which we are phasing out, as a county phases out its landfill capacity, it works to identify landfills outside the county. Some of our largest landfills exist outside of Detroit as it is the biggest population center in Michigan. Then, the receiving county has to confirm that they have the capacity to take in the garbage from other counties.”


Ring said it is especially important for EGLE to communicate with municipalities during natural disasters, when large amounts of materials and furniture are put to the curb, and when materials that are hazardous need to be separated out for distinct landfills that take industrial and hazardous waste materials.


Ring then pointed to the details of Part 115 in regards to how counties will communicate to the state on their remaining landfill space.


The new law “requires all landfills in Michigan to annually submit a report to (EGLE) and the county and municipality in which the landfill is located that specifies the tonnage and type of solid waste received by the landfill during the year itemized, to the extent possible, by county, state or country of origin and the amount of remaining disposal capacity at the landfill.”


The law continues that the “remaining disposal capacity shall be calculated as the permitted capacity less waste in place for any area that has been constructed and is not yet closed plus the permitted capacity for each area that has a permit for construction under Part 115 but has not yet been constructed. The report shall be submitted within 45 days after the end of each state fiscal year.”


Ring said under Part 115, EGLE also strives to improve recycling rates in the state, which is why her department is being rebranded as materials, not waste management.


“One of the reasons that we revamped our solid waste management law was to promote more recycling,” Ring said. “We want to get recycling rates up in the state, which are now at 21 percent. We are emphasizing the fact that so much of what we throw out can have another use and not be permanently discarded.”


Ring brought up the state’s recycling raccoons PSA campaign. “That campaign is aimed at current recyclers,” Ring said.


“As dutiful as they are, they don't always put properly cleaned items out for recycling, and they don’t understand how recycling abilities vary from spot to spot depending on the machinery they have for separating recyclables. So, the key is that if we can get those dutiful people to be even more diligent, we can recycle more effectively and get these materials out to market more quickly.”


When a landfill reaches the end of its life, Ring said there is another set of regulations.


“We have strict requirements for how a landfill is capped,” she said. “There is a minimum of 30-year post-closure maintenance and monitoring requirements. Landfill managers must monitor for groundwater runoff and check the cap for erosion and methane leakage. Some less stable landfill mounds will be monitored for up to 50 years.”


With enough time and monitoring for safety, some landfills that closed in the 1980s have been reused for recreation, parks, ski slopes and athletic fields. Ring said former landfills with their open space make the ideal locations for solar energy arrays.


No matter how much a municipal waste tipping fee hike may slow garbage generation in Michigan, one problem will remain for decades – the plumes of methane which belch out of the garbage piles, fueled by rotting organic waste, especially food waste.


It is the hidden problem that has only received attention in the last few years from environmentalists who point to our garbage dumps as significant sources of greenhouse emitters.


Timothy Unseld has been an engineer with EGLE’s solid waste program since 1993, where he drafted proposed changes to Part 115 of the Michigan Solid Waste Management Act. Part of those changes were requirements for the landfill gas collection systems and performance standards for the systems enforced under EGLE’s Air Quality Division under a stipulation from the federal Clean Air Act.


With the enactment of Part 115, Unseld was appointed as EGLE’s landfill gas specialist to help coordinate statewide efforts to create, review and monitor methane capture systems for Michigan’s municipal solid waste landfills.


Unseld said as of March 29, 2024, Part 115 stipulates that all landfills in Michigan of a certain size must have a surface emission monitoring plan submitted to the state that will be reviewed and approved by EGLE. Sites that currently do not have an active vacuum-extracted gas collection system in place, such as smaller landfill sites with no gas collection, will be remedied with an active gas collection as well as any new sections of landfill going forward.


Unseld explained that methane is up to 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its contribution to warming greenhouse gases if it is not burned and allowed to escape into the atmosphere. Burning it as fuel generates carbon dioxide and water vapor.


“Yes, you are still emitting carbon dioxide, so it is not perfect,” Unseld admitted. “However, you are emitting 25 times less greenhouse gasses. Because this methane can be used for electricity, it almost has a carbon-neutral result. If you are using it to generate electricity (instead of coal, for example), you are emitting 25 times less of greenhouse gasses.”


He said the other not-as-visible benefit to capturing methane for energy is economical.


“There's a financial driver to collect that methane and use it as power out on the electricity grid. The grid infrastructure and metering capabilities are already there to make this achievable.”


Unseld said there are several locations in Michigan where methane is being deployed for electricity generation. In one application, methane from a nearby landfill fuels half the power needs for a General Motors assembly plant based in Lake Orion. The factory is ranked as the eighth largest user of green power generated onsite in the United States, according to the EPA. It is among the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership (GPP) partners, at the Orion assembly where GM’s Chevrolet Bolt EV is built, it saves $1 million a year by using renewable energy. The plant also is home to a 350-kilowatt solar array that sends energy back to the grid.


Another example of methane being channeled for electricity is the Granger Road Landfill in Lansing which sells methane to the Lansing Board of Light and Power as part of its green energy program. Consumer’s Energy also pulls methane from the South Kent Landfill in Byron Center, Michigan, for electricity.


According to the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that advocates for effective enforcement of environmental laws, more than 1,100 municipal landfills emitted at least 3.7 million metric tons of methane in 2021, which had the climate-warming impact of 66 million gasoline-powered vehicles driving for a year – or the equivalent of 79 coal-fired power plants.


In May 2023, the EIP released its report, “Trashing the Climate: Methane from Municipal Landfills.” The report listed the nation’s top ten worst offending landfills containing the most waste over the last 10 years that produced the most methane. Included was the Waste Management of Michigan Incorporated landfill in Wayne County, which produced an estimated 6,693 metric tons of methane.


Methane from food waste, in particular, is a growing problem that needs to be addressed, according to EIP’s report. Americans throw out about 40 percent of their food and the volume of food waste produced in the U.S. increased by a staggering 70 percent between 1990 and 2017.


In June of 2023, on behalf of 12 environmental organizations and two individuals, the EIP filed a rulemaking petition against the EPA seeking a sped-up revision of their air pollution standards for municipal solid waste landfills under Section 111 of the US Clean Air Act, which was last updated in 2016.


“Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to update their rules (for air quality emissions) every eight years, and that deadline is coming up in August of 2024,” said Leah Kelly, EIP senior attorney and one of Trashing the Climate’s authors. “But one of the things that we laid out in the petition is that multiple states (California, Oregon, Maryland, and Washington) already have much stronger regulations on the books than the federal ones from the EPA regarding methane. Canada has also surpassed the EPA in terms of where they are in regulating emissions from landfills.”


Kelly continued: “Scientists for decades have been telling us we have to address climate change. We don’t have any more time. We need to make the most meaningful emissions reductions as quickly as possible. That's why a lot of folks are focused on sharply cutting methane.”


Kelly explained that the EPA established certain threshold sizes in order for a landfill to fall under federal regulations to capture methane. The EPA considers a critical mass of about 2.5 million tons with a collection capacity of 34 tons per year of creating a pollutant known as non-methane organic compounds. In plain speak, Kelly said the EPA only requires the larger landfills to be outfitted with methane control systems.


“From there, a landfill has 30 months from when they hit those emissions thresholds, not from when a municipality builds a new landfill site, to trigger the requirement to install a methane emissions control system,” Kelly said. “So, a new landfill can be created and it can be a small landfill. It is not under obligation to fall under federal regulations (to install a methane capture system) until it reaches a size and emissions rate. However, from the experts we consult with, there should be a requirement for new landfills, or new sections of existing landfills, to incorporate methane capture systems from the earliest phases of a landfill design. Just as landfill designers create leachate capture systems from the onset of design, methane capture systems should also be considered from the very beginning.”


In addition to petitioning the EPA to consider requirements for methane capture control systems at the beginning of a landfill design phase, Kelly said the EIP is asking the EPA to mandate more efficient capture and monitoring systems to check for methane leaks – plumes of gas that are not siphoned into pipes and are either burned off or used as fuel. As it stands now, to monitor methane leak levels, a person must physically walk atop the terrain of a landfill pile with a monitoring wand, one basketball field-sized area at a time, to take measurements.


“There are much better technologies being used and developed to measure methane emissions for the oil and gas industry under the EPA’s new oil and gas industry regulations,” Kelly said. “Another thing we are petitioning the EPA is to divert more organic waste from our landfills, and that means more composting. It is such an important activity and it should be incentivized and encouraged as much as possible.”


The third element the EIP is asking of the EPA is to change its requirements on what materials are used to create covers for landfills. Separate from the Clean Air Act, language regarding landfill coverings is included in a federal statute for the disposal of solid waste called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.


The materials that cover a landfill is a critical part of controlling methane emissions,” Kelley explained. “Covers boost the efficiency of these gas control systems. Certain types of materials (like specific grades of soil or compost) contain methanotrophic bacteria that eat up the methane as it rises up to the cover level.”


Since submitting their petition to the EPA, Kelly said the agency has responded. “The EPA is in the very early stages of considering what a new regulation would look like,” Kelly said. “So, they are listening to the concerns that we presented in the petition. We don’t have a deadline in terms of when they may draft a regulatory action and put it into effect.”


As EIP’s Kelly explained, getting data readings for methane emission leaks as it stands now can be tedious and relatively primitive.


That’s where an organization called Carbon Mapper is attempting to step in and change up the game. The small nonprofit employs about 30 scientists and researchers through public and private partnerships on mapping projects with governments out west.

Carbon Mapper deploys 21st Century techniques, like drones and small aircraft, outfitted with advanced imaging sensors that can fly over an area such as a landfill and take a moment-in-time data captures of a plume of methane to determine just how much is coming out of a certain landfill on a given hour of a certain day.


“Think of (methane mapping) like a camera taking a picture, an instantaneous snapshot of one instance in time when we fly over a site, such as a landfill to record a significant gas output classified as a plume,” described Carbon Mapper Research Scientist Tia Scarpelli “We then aggregate data we get from one plume observed multiple times in a day, or from different plumes over different days, and that average admission rate is what we call a source data point.”

According to the organization’s website, a key goal with mapping, collecting and then creating visuals with all this data is the hope that it will spurn policy change by making the public understand that food waste, which becomes rotting organic matter, is one of the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet


In 2022, Carbon Mapper took several flyover observations in the Detroit metro area to monitor emissions in several landfills, including in Auburn Hills and Canton.


The flyover of the landfill in Auburn Hills captured methane emission rates of a single source through five separate observations over three days. It was detected that the source had an average emission rate of 251 kilograms of methane per hour. 

In another 2022 flyover observation over the Woodlands Disposal and Recycling facility in Canton on June 30, July 21, and September 17, methane emissions over those three recorded days topped out at the average emissions were quantified at 3,600 kilograms of methane per hour. Scarpelli said she derived this average across the whole landfill by zooming in on the landfill and then clicking “summary statistics” in the organization’s data portal, which is free and available to the public.


According to Scarpelli, the EPA has set no maximum permissible limits for methane emissions from landfills.


“Action over the next 10 years will be critical in reigning in carbon dioxide and methane emissions,” Scarpelli said. “Landfill operators are challenged with taking manual measurements of methane with wand-like instruments they use as they walk across a landfill a few basketball-court sized areas at a time. This is a hard way to monitor the expanse of a landfill for methane leaks and uncaptured gasses.”


Katherine Blauvelt is the circular economy director of Industrious Labs, a nonprofit research organization that strives to encourage policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging production and consumption for the circular economy – one that stresses leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible.


“Unfortunately, Michigan ranks sixth in the nation in terms of methane emissions from landfills,” Blauvelt said. “Michigan is head and shoulders above other states in terms of the amount of trash it takes in. At Industrious Labs, we work collaboratively at the state level to take steps to decarbonize industries. Methane emissions are the emergency brake on global warming. It is simply the most effective and immediate step we can take as a society to slow down the global warming process. And landfills have the potential to emit methane for decades if it is not properly captured.”


Blauvelt said on a bright note that Michigan is on the right track with its changes in state policy, outlined in Part 115.


“Michigan lawmakers took positive action to address real-life problems at landfills,” Blauvelt said. “Now landfill managers will be required to look for methane leaks sooner than later. Because research has told us that food waste decays very rapidly within months of arriving in a landfill. So municipal waste managers really need to get on top of finding those methane plumes quickly. Now that (Part) 115 has gone into effect, it directs the landfill operators to start monitoring for leaks.”

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