Bury, baby, bury: A Capitol fight over grass clippings
|By Dave Dempsey|
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Never in the field of legislative conflict has so little been haggled over by so many.” Yet in the seemingly innocuous issue of how to use our grass clippings and leaves is tucked a profound debate on the environment — and who has the real clout in the Capitol today when it comes to green issues.
In the ring of this boxing match are the Greater Lansing area’s own landfill company and the waste industry generally on one side, and environmental organizations and composting businesses on the other.
A short rewind here: In the annals of environmental politics, dumps play a starring role. Hundreds of them once dotted Michigan, leaking chemicals into underground drinking water and occasionally burning. They’ve cost Michigan taxpayers hundreds of millions to clean up.
After the modern “sanitary” landfill came on the scene, leaks and dumps were fewer and attention shifted to their declining remaining volume. Recycling took off as a way to reduce waste burial and protect the planet. In one simple 1990 act, the Legislature reduced landfilled waste 20 percent by banning the dumping of grass clippings and leaves. When it came on line in 1995, the law spurred a new composting industry, which used the yard waste as a prime ingredient in high-quality fertilizer.
The policy was clear: find the maximum feasible alternatives to garbage dumping. Now something new is proposed for Michigan. When it comes to yard waste, bury, baby, bury. A hotly debated measure considered in both House and Senate bills would relax the yard waste landfill ban — and the Lansing region’s only landfill company is behind the move 100 percent.
Granger Waste Management, which describes itself as a “third generation, familyowned, Lansing-based business,” is a leading proponent of the change. In an interesting spin, Granger’s rationale isn’t the additional revenues it would get — it’s “clean, renewable energy.” Adding more yard waste to landfills, the company says, will create with decomposing garbage just the right mix to generate increased methane. That greenhouse gas, over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, can be captured and turned into energy to heat homes — although how many is a big question. (The bill’s opponents say that Granger’s estimates of powering 10,000 homes if the bill passes are way out of whack and that its current Lansing recapture operation produces enough juice to power only 76 homes.) Without recapture, the gas leaks into the atmosphere.
In legislative testimony, Granger’s Tonia Olson said, “We know these facilities [landfills] can be a greater resource. Today, forward-thinking companies like ours capture the methane to produce energy by installing collection piping as each portion of the landfill is built — before trash is put in place.”
East Lansing State Rep. Mark Meadows said he cosponsored the bill although he has problems with it in its current form. "I support the debate," he said, adding that the solid waste industry should have a chance to make its case that yard waste in landfills can produce worthwhile quantities of renewable energy.
"The right requirements must be in place," Meadows said, "and there is still a lot of work to do on this bill to make it supportable in the House. Granger has an energy production facility in place, and I would like to see them as part of a pilot project."
Opponents say the bill would actually worsen greenhouse gas emissions. The Sierra Club argues that “the vast majority of methane generated from decomposition in landfills will escape into the atmosphere long before a methane recovery system can be installed.”
A more tangible impact in Michigan’s climate — of job hunger — might be the harm done to the composting industry. About 150 facilities in the state, many small businesses that could lose business, or shut down altogether. Meanwhile, landfills would get more revenue from the increased waste AND more revenue by selling the recaptured gas.
One side effect of the legislation could be an increase in much-detested out-of-state waste imports to Michigan. Current state law bans the imports from states that don’t have yard waste landfill prohibitions similar to Michigan’s. That means about 34 states that don’t have access to Michigan garbage burial sites might under the bill.
“More greenhouse gases, more landfills, and more unemployed workers — that’s three strikes in our book,” said James Clift, policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council. “Michigan legislators should be exploring policies that will make us a clean energy leader."
Kerrin O’Brien, director of the Michigan Recycling Council, made that point in her own testimony. “The global call for solid waste management is zero waste. If we answer that call, where is the future role of this technology? Composting, on the other hand, is a renewable technology where the end product is immediately usable and has an economic and environmental value that benefits residents, businesses, and industry throughout the state.”
The issue may be a little less about competing versions of climate change reduction than the rhetoric suggests. Since when do garbage companies give a rip about global warming? At least since they realized it could be used as a Trojan horse to weaken the 1990 yard waste landfilling ban. Industry learned something else in 1990, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, when national sentiment about Earth protection peaked: You don’t win by bashing environmental progress. You win by wrapping your self-serving goals in the cloak of environmental progress.
(Dave Dempsey advised Gov. James Blanchard on environmental policy from 1983 to 1989. He is author of a book on Michigan’s conservation history and is communications director for the nonprofit organization Conservation Minnesota.)