At the time, the episode was the perfect allegory for our environmental predicament: an ocean-going barge piled with more than 3,100 tons of garbage, churning up and down the Eastern Seaboard looking for some place to dump its trash. It was March 1987 when the Mobro 4000 left New York for North Carolina, where the garbage was supposed to be put into a landfill. At the last minute, North Carolina officials refused to let the barge offload its cargo. But no one else wanted a ship of rubbish. So the barge was forced to wander the seas, going as far as Belize in search of some community willing to take tons of trash. Finally, six months after it set off, the barge returned to New York, where the material was incinerated.
The tragicomedy of the garbage barge – such a mediagenic metaphor for our messy overconsumption – became a catalyst for reform. In the wake of the debacle, federal, state, and local officials across the US intensified their efforts to divert waste from landfills. Recycling went mainstream.
Among the waste-reduction efforts put into place in the late eighties and early nineties were laws that banned sending yard waste to municipal landfills. The laws, which were passed by 24 states, have been an environmental success. In 1990, according to figures from the US EPA, the United States recovered about 4 million tons of organic materials for composting; by 2008, that number had increased to 22 million tons. Nearly two-thirds of the yard waste generated by homeowners today is diverted from landfills. The EPA has called the yard waste bans “essential.”
So why is Waste Management, the largest garbage company in the US, lobbying to repeal state laws that ban yard waste in landfills?
Since 2009, Missouri, Florida, and Georgia have re-written their laws governing yard waste in landfills. In two of those states – Florida and Georgia – Waste Management played a prominent role in pushing to overturn the yard waste bans. Earlier this year, Waste Management made an effort, unsuccessful so far, to rewrite Michigan’s yard waste law. A Waste Management executive, Vice President Tom Horton, told lawmakers that the Michigan yard waste ban is a subsidy for composting businesses and “should be viewed as ... corporate welfare.”
Composting proponents are outraged by Waste Management’s lobbying. They say the move is nothing but a cynical attempt to keep profits flowing to the publicly traded corporation.
When the US economy dropped off a cliff in 2008, consumption slumped – as did the amount of trash people tossed out. The volume of waste generated by Americans fell for the first time since the government started keeping such statistics. While that might be good news for resource conservation, it’s bad news for Waste Management, which earns much of its annual $13 billion revenue from the money it charges for disposing of trash.
“Their business model is based on controlling the landfills and ensuring that a lot of materials go there,” said Peter Anderson, executive director of the Center for a Competitive Waste Industry. “They are doing this [lobbying to change the laws] to take more material to the landfill in order to make the demand for landfill tight, which gives them the power to charge monopoly rents.”
Waste Management executives brush off such criticisms. “Landfill operators do not lay awake at night thinking that yard clippings are the answer to their prayers,” company VP Horton told the Michigan Senate. The company likes to point out that the rewritten Georgia and Florida laws allow for yard waste to go only to landfills with methane-capture systems. The laws were rewritten, the company says, to give cities and counties more flexibility to decide how best to dispose of organic materials.
“In fact, this is about enabling community choice,” Waste Management spokesman Ken Haldin told me. “It’s easy to say it should be composted. Of course, if that’s an option, it should be. But where composting isn’t occurring, preventing it from going someplace where there is methane capture doesn’t seem a very common sense choice.”
That seems reasonable enough. Nevertheless, it appears that Waste Management has used a combination of campaign contributions and political lobbying to rewrite laws that had a clear public benefit (diverting waste) to foster its own corporate agenda (making additional profits by converting organic materials into methane gas for energy generation).
Figures gathered by the National Institute on Money in State Politics illustrate the point. From 2003 to 2012, Georgia and Florida were among the top five states for Waste Management’s political giving. In 2010 the company and its employees made $235,000 in political contributions to politicians in Florida, the most donations the company made in any state. Waste Management also had 13 Florida lobbyists on the payroll that year, more than double the number the company employed in preceding years. It was in 2010 that the Florida legislature repealed the state’s yard waste ban and then, after a gubernatorial veto, overrode the veto.
In Georgia, Waste Management’s election-year contributions to candidates averaged about $64,000 from 2004 through 2008. Then, in 2010, the company’s giving to Georgia lawmakers spiked as Waste Management and its employees made $105,000 in contributions. The next year the Georgia legislature voted to change the state’s law governing yard waste disposal.
Mark Woodall, a veteran statehouse lobbyist for the Georgia Sierra Club, says that in addition to its suddenly aggressive campaign contributions, Waste Management won votes by making donations to charities known to be legislators’ pet causes. This was especially effective, Woodall says, in attracting the support of the statehouse’s influential bloc of African-American legislators. In the past, black representatives had often voted against Waste Management’s interests; the siting of landfills in communities of color, they argued, was a form of environmental racism. On the yard waste issue, the past adversaries found a way to get along.
“It was very aggressive lobbying of the black caucus, certainly new and different,” Woodall said. “The corporate power, you know, often overcomes the public interest, as it did in this case. They spent a lot of money and they hired a lot of lobbyists and they made a lot of contributions.”
Waste Management’s Ken Haldin disputes that. “I think the merits of the issue is what ultimately got the votes,” he said.
But waste disposal experts say the best available science argues for keeping organics out of landfills. The EPA considers composting to be the “best and highest” use of yard waste. In addition to freeing up landfill space, composting cycles nutrients back into soils and keeps CO2 out of the atmosphere. Disposal experts point out that Waste Management’s methane capture systems typically aren’t put into place for three to five years after materials are sent to a landfill, during which time the organic materials have already broken down. At best, a methane-capture system grabs 75 percent of the gas coming off a landfill. “Even if they were capturing all of the gas, there are a lot of organics that are sitting in the landfill,” said Jack Macy, the zero waste coordinator for San Francisco, which has the best waste-diversion record in the US. “The biggest benefit of diverting organics is returning it to the soil.”
Waste Management has sought to re-brand itself as an environmental leader by adopting the phrase “Think Green” as its slogan. Given the company’s record of rewriting state yard waste laws, some people have a hard time seeing that as anything more than corporate doublespeak. The Sierra Club’s Woodall told me, “The only green they have in mind is green money.”
Jason Mark is editor of Earth Island Journal.
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