Waste Reduction and Diversion in the South

How We Doin’?

by | Feb 26, 2018

Well, not really very well, according to a March 2015 study reported by Waste360 which ranked “The 10 Best and Worst States for Waste Diversion, Reduction.” No states in the South were among the best, but you will find five Southern states listed among the worst.

So, why is the South falling short in our waste diversion and reduction efforts compared to other parts of the country? There’s one answer and it’s both simple and complicated – it’s about cost. But cost considered only in financial terms, not taking into account costs to the environment and our quality of life.

Though ever-growing numbers of people and businesses are participating in recycling programs in their communities, we still produce enormous amounts of waste. In most cases, a landfill is the easiest answer, and many of us tend to just be content with burying the problem in a landfill. If we can’t see it, we can just forget about it.

We’ve all heard the downsides of landfills: among them, soil and ground water pollution and higher transportation and energy costs (in many cases, waste has to travel a long way to find its landfill home). And P.S., after a landfill is closed, it can take thousands of years for many of the contents – such as Styrofoam – to decompose.

Even with increased interest in recycling, landfills remain the most common and economical waste management solution in many parts of the country. And since the South is a large region with lots of open land, the tipping fees (cost of waste received at landfills) have remained relatively low in the Southern states.

 “Because of this abundance of landfills and land space in certain states, it’s sometimes much
cheaper to dispose of waste rather than recycling. States with less land have greater
difficulty getting rid of their waste, which is why their prices are higher.”

–John Witherspoon, President,
Municipal Waste Consultants of Georgia

These tipping fees vary widely from region to region and even from state to state. For example, according to the Waste Business Journal, in 2017 tipping fees in the Southeast averaged $38 per ton. In the same year, the Northeast averaged $79.3 per ton – more than double the average fee charged in the Southern states.

In coming years, however, we may not be able to blame price differences for our continued landfill use. If you google “increasing landfill fees,” you’ll find news about rising fees from Paso Robles, California to Walker County, Georgia to New Zealand.

According to Waste Dive, the largest landfill fee increases in the United States most recently occurred in the Midwest (8.9%) and the Southeast (6.6%), partly due to the continued popularity of these regions as export destinations for other states. (Isn’t “export” a nice way of saying “we’re sending you our trash”?)

Many states with less land area have found exporting the most effective way to deal with their waste.  In some cases, larger states are also increasing export volumes as their landfill fees

increase or as they look to reduce the number of their landfills. A number of Southern states are receiving these “imports,” among them Alabama, Virginia, South Carolina and Kentucky.

Southern states are even exporting to each other. As an example, trash collected from cities and towns in Florida that border Georgia and Alabama will often be dumped outside the state of origin in order to receive the lower gate rates in those states.

And while we’ve primarily been talking about land mass, it’s important to remember that it’s not only the size of the area that’s an issue. For example, a large state like California today may appear to have lots of land but their greater population density can increase pressure to preserve land and environmental quality.

As you might imagine, transporting huge truckloads of garbage from one region of the country to another adds to the tipping fees – fuel, equipment, and personnel. Some of you may remember the infamous “garbage barge,” which left New York loaded with trash in March of 1987. The waste traveled down the East Coast and around Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. After being banned from six states and two foreign nations (Mexico and Belize), and riding around for almost two months, the waste returned to New York, and was eventually disposed of after a series of inter-borough debates.

No matter how much land we have now or how we choose to use it, we need to remember that open land is a finite resource. And as the economic justification for landfill use becomes less persuasive in the future, we must continue to look at better ways to deal with our waste.  There are things we can do in the meantime, including buying more products made from recycled material, changing our recycling and waste disposal habits, including reducing contamination in our residential recycling by separately recycling glass and ensuring only materials that are 100% recyclable are in the bins. We can also better educating individuals and businesses on the benefits – both economic and environmental – of recycling.

In 2006, M-PASS Environmental developed their Multi-Step Cost Reduction Analysis Process, which, according to President and Founder Lorraine White, “enables us to provide organizations and municipalities with significant cost savings in their waste management and recycling programs. A priority of our work with clients is to enhance sustainable initiatives, including looking for all the possible ways to reduce landfill tonnage and help our clients increase their recycling efforts.”

And finally, by not emphasizing recycling as an alternative to landfills, we are ignoring a huge economic market. According to the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC), “Southeastern manufacturers rely on recycled glass, plastic, metal, and paper to make new consumer goods.” You can get a quick idea of the numbers of these manufacturing sites from SERDC’s interactive map, which highlights key manufacturers using recycled materials to make their products.

In Georgia, for example, we have a recycling market infrastructure which includes the state’s carpet industry which uses recycled plastics, and the pulp and paper mills that use recycled fiber in their production. Our landfills probably contain millions of dollars’ worth of recyclable materials. Materials that could turn into a financial benefit for both the entity dumping the waste as well as the company waiting to turn those materials back into useful products.

Let’s take a longer look at the economics of recycling and take better care of our valuable land resources – both in the South as well as the rest of the United States.

It …
Creates jobs
Saves energy
Conserves natural resources
Contributes to water conservation
Saves landfill space

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