Turning trash into cash

Trash has to go somewhere -- but where? End of the line at the Puente Hills Landfill in Southern California.

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Tess Vigeland: One of the big problems facing our buy-it-and-toss-it culture is that we're running out of places to put all that trash. As we mentioned earlier, landfills are closing and in most places, the not-in-my-backyarders are vocal opponents against new ones.

But believe it or not, some places actually want our garbage. The U.S. imports trash from Canada and hazardous waste from Mexico.

Why? Money.

A report from the Congressional Research Service shows more than 42 million tons of municipal solid waste crossed state lines for disposal in 2005.

Pennsylvania is the country's biggest trash importer. So we sent Marketplace's Amy Scott to a town in the central part of the state where local officials are actually fighting to bring trash to their community and she got an earful.


Pat Couturiaux: We need the jobs.

Amy Scott: 50 years ago, Pat Couturiaux worked as a truck driver, hauling coal in Pennsylvania's Moshannon Valley. But the mines shut down in the 1980s and recently, as a supervisor of Rush Township, Couturiaux voted to bring in a private landfill, incinerator, and industrial park. He says the project could bring dozens of jobs to the area and up to $3.5 million a year in fees to the township government.

Couturiaux: Our school district is hurtin'; it's like a million and a half dollars in debt. We need this landfill.

Communities throughout Pennsylvania have made the same calculation. As cities like New York have closed their own landfills, an interstate garbage trade has thrived. Pennsylvania imports more trash from out-of-state than any other state in the country. More than nine million tons of it last year. Stan LaFuria directs the Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership. He says as the local mining industry collapsed and textile jobs headed overseas, the region has turned to businesses people generally don't want in their backyards.

Stan LaFuria: We have Wal-Mart, prisons, and now landfills coming, but it's jobs. So bring it on. Because you just don't see the big-time business park developments and private developers looking at our area.

Plenty of local residents would prefer the area remain overlooked. About half a mile from the proposed landfill site, Terri Burbidge surveys an old railroad tunnel from the coal mining days. Hikers and ATV Riders frequent the abandoned rail bed.

Terri Burbidge: They'll be able to smell it, they'll be able to see it. This is very, very close.

Burbidge and her husband moved here about three years ago to escape the bustle of Pittsburgh only to find out their little mountain community might become the dumping ground for cities hundreds of miles away. The landfill developer says some of the garbage is likely to come from out of state.

Burbidge: We have all of this to offer and this is our mountains. So, why are we taking New York trash?

The main reason might actually be profit. Heather Rogers wrote the book "Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage." She says in the 1960s and 70s, private haulers like Waste Management began buying up local landfills.

Today, just a handful of multinational corporations handle most of our waste. Rogers says to maximize efficiency, they've built ever larger regional "mega-fills" and to maximize profits, those landfills seek garbage from farther and farther afield.

Heather Rogers: This exporting is not happening because it makes sense environmentally. It's not happening because it's creating jobs in rural areas. It's happening because it makes economic sense for these corporations to run their facilities in this way.

Landfills may be better neighbors than they were a few decades ago, but they still tend to end up in communities that are poor, or rural or otherwise less politically powerful -- places like Rush Township.

Some people say that's unfair, but Vivian Thomson says it's not that simple. She teaches environmental science at the University of Virginia.

Vivian Thomson: I had a student who came from one of these very communities in Eastern Virginia with a mega-landfill.

Thompson has written a book about the interstate trash trade.

Thomson: And in our discussion about this particular issue, he said "I wouldn't be at the University of Virginia if it weren't for the landfill that came in and that gave revenues to our community so that we could build new schools. I wouldn't be here. So, what's fair?

At a recent township meeting, Supervisor Pat Couturiaux asked the same question. The landfill project he's pushing hinges on a new exit off of Interstate 80 and so far, the county government has blocked plans to build it, despite local appeals.

Couturiaux: They have in their head that this township, not just us, but everybody in Centre County on this side just doesn't count. That's all there is to it. Gee whiz, what are we, a bunch of hillbillies?

Meanwhile, Rush Township continues to export its own trash to Somerset, Pennsylvania, about a hundred miles away.

In Rush Township, Pennsylvania, I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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