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Editorial: Landfill loser

The governor should attack waste, not wastelands

Sunday, September 20, 1998

America has a waste problem. Not Pennsylvania, not Oregon, but America. We consume too much. We reuse too little. And the packaging of all those wonderful consumer goods taxes the environment.

So when Gov. Ridge, who is not highly regarded in eco-circles and who is a political favorite of the waste industry, unveils a "get-tough-on-landfills" proposal, we have to wonder. He wants the Legislature to put a three-year freeze on permits for new landfills and to cut Pennsylvania's disposal space from a projected 12 years to eight.

Wait a minute. Isn't this the state that faced a landfill shortage a decade ago? Isn't this the state (along with every other) that was told by the U.S. Supreme Court it had to accept out-of-state garbage, or else be in violation of interstate commerce?

It is time all Pennsylvanians learned a fundamental lesson: Eliminating trash dumps will not eliminate trash. Yet the governor is playing an election-year numbers game that will have no environmental impact.

First, Pennsylvania landfills currently receive an average of 70,000 tons of trash a day. Even if the state refused to open any new sites, today's facilities have such excess capacity that they can handle up to 120,000 tons daily - without a change in permits.

Second, despite the political appeal of stopping New York and New Jersey trash trucks at the Pennsylvania border, there is nothing in the governor's plan that could accomplish that feat. Unless the Supreme Court reverses its 1994 waste decision or Congress acts to permit states to ban out-of-state garbage, Pennsylvania landfills will stop taking trash from other states on the same day they stop taking it from Bloomfield, Braddock and Bedford. It's the law.

Also, Gov. Ridge's proposal to suspend the development of new landfills comes only 10 years after Gov. Casey declared a landfill shortage (based on projections of two years' disposal left). To address the crisis in 1988, the Casey administration had to join the Legislature in changing laws to increase disposal space. Should state policy on this issue careen from one extreme to the next in such a short span of time?

The Post-Gazette has another problem with the governor's plan. While we agree that penalties should be toughened on haulers that repeatedly violate environmental and safety laws, the related proposal to charge every trash truck a $1,500 to $5,000 "transport fee" (to help pay for inspection and enforcement) would favor large companies over smaller, independent ones. Large companies could more readily absorb the new annual fees, while small competitors might find that the new costs make it harder to compete. Plus, a new layer of fees on the entire industry would likely be passed on to individual customers, raising garbage rates across the state for no good reason.

If Gov. Ridge and the Legislature wanted to do something meaningful about trash, they'd act to reduce waste at its source. Pennsylvania recycles 25 percent of municipal waste and the state wants to raise that to 35 percent by 2003. Only by taking more garbage out of the waste stream can society reduce reliance on landfills.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that yard waste - mainly clippings, limbs and leaves - makes up 14 percent of the nation's landfills. Another 39 percent is consumed by paper and paper packagings. If Pennsylvania wanted to bar out-of-state trash, it could do so with disposal bans on specific types of garbage - like yard waste (which could be composted) or paper (which could be recycled).

But then Pennsylvanians, too, would be unable to send such items to landfills. Removing them from the waste stream would take work, planning and government involvement. Not as easy as fiddling with numerical ceilings on disposal capacity.

The question is not, as the governor asks, do we want to reduce landfills? The question is do we want to reduce the waste that requires society to build them?

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