In the not too distant past, Michiganders worked themselves into a frenzy about how many landfills the state had and, more specifically, about all the trash from outside the state that found its way here as a result. The chief object of revulsion: Canadian trash coming from as far as Toronto.
But as the Canadian trash has begun to dwindle, thanks to strong efforts from various elected officials here and a commitment to recycling and other steps taken there, prudent landfill policy has receded from public priorities.
At least that's what the Legislature must think, as it proceeds to undo Michigan's ban on yard waste going into landfills. Since 1995, the state has enforced a system that requires grass clippings and leaves to be kept separated and hauled not to landfills but kept above ground for use as compost.
The yard-waste ban rates as a success on several counts. Michigan's landfills fill more slowly, postponing the higher costs that would come due from landfill expansion. Jobs were created in the newly formed composting business. The state could reject out-of-state trash that didn't meet its no-yard-waste standard, which presumably helped keep communities near landfills from being even more overwhelmed by truck traffic from afar.
Many municipalities have handled composting on their own, but nearly 60 companies also got into the business and created jobs along the way. Now they are looking at bankruptcy if Michigan reverses course on yard waste.
The landfills see yard waste as an additional way to generate methane, which builds when organic matter doesn't have access to the air and which most landfills now siphon off to generate electricity. This, too, is an admirable feat. But at least one study shows that the increase in electricity generated with a reinfusion of yard waste would be minimal: a tenth of a percent, maybe, of Michigan's electrical production.
Meanwhile, the state's landfills would get used up faster, and the benefits of using yard waste for compost would disappear. This is, after all, perhaps the most basic form of recycling — something nature does on its own and human landscapers can easily mimic by just not burying the leaves that fall every year and the weekly lawn trimmings.
Michigan's reputation for pulling the rug out from under industries it encourages is at stake, too. Composters have had a better run than the film industry, but who wants to trust a legislative body that so easily dismisses its predecessors' decisions?
The state House has already passed a bill that reverses the yard-waste ban.
That leaves it up to the Senate, and Gov. Rick Snyder, to speak up for a system that has served Michiganders well and created jobs, too. Yard waste belongs on the earth, not beneath it.
Detroit Free Press