Pat Clark has written another brilliant editorial on how the unintended consequences of garbage regulations written in the 1980’s turned Pennsylvania into America’s dump. Which of our leaders will be strong enough and brave enough to stand up to Big Garbage to reverse this trend and stand for a brighter, cleaner future for Pennsylvania starting by denying the expansion of KSL?
Unintended consequences are often born of the purest intentions.
The introduction of passenger-side air bags was a major safety advance but initially resulted in more child fatalities. Prohibition may have reduced alcohol consumption in the 1920s but it helped the advance of organized crime in America. Smokey Bear had iconic public service announcements but likely contributed to an increase in catastrophic forest fires.
When enacting the Solid Waste Management Act in 1980, Pennsylvania’s elected officials knew we had a problem. They found that “improper and inadequate solid waste practices create public health hazards, environmental pollution, and economic loss and cause irreparable harm to the public health, safety and welfare.”
They passed laws and introduced regulations intending to fix the known problems. Forty years later, the law of unintended consequences reared its ugly — and smelly — head once again. Pennsylvania is now America’s dump. Pennsylvania consistently imports more garbage than any other state. We have been doing this since at least the 1990s. We have more trash per person wrapped up in our landfills than any other state in the country except for Nevada.
Nevadans better watch out; we are coming for that crown, too. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has approved landfill capacity at a breakneck pace and scale. Between 1995 and 2000, the state’s available landfill capacity increased from 146 million tons to 287 million tons. Since, it has been more of the same. Most-recent reports show more than 360 million tons of available capacity.
Do we need this continued expansion of supply to accommodate an equally increasing demand for landfill space? Is each person generating more trash? No, not only is per-person waste production decreasing, but recycling rates are increasing. At the current pace, and with no new additional capacity, Pennsylvania has more than 20 years of landfill space remaining.
Big Garbage knows this. It has spent 40 years learning, tweaking and beating the system. What is Big Garbage’s game plan and what is the end game?
First, they get the capacity. Big Garbage has identified Pennsylvania as a location where the industry can readily expand and trash can easily reach. This blatant expansionary mindset was best displayed in a hearing for the Keystone Sanitary Landfill’s proposed expansion. When asked why it wants a nearly 50-year expansion, a landfill spokesperson glibly replied, “because we couldn’t fit 100.” Reports show that over the past 20 years, the DEP has approved thousands of expansion and modification requests while also allowing new landfills to be built.
Second, they use the capacity surplus to keep the status quo. Big Garbage knows that leading progressive cities — like Seattle and New York — states and companies — such as Google, Microsoft and Subaru — actively seek to evolve from a disposable economy — take-make-dispose — to a circular economy — take, make, reuse, repurpose and design out waste. Many have defined goals of zero waste. Even the Environmental Protection Agency has a stated goal to reduce domestic food loss and waste by half by the year 2030. However, Big Garbage knows that as long as cheap landfill space remains available, the impetus, or necessity, to change is mostly reduced or eliminated.
Third, they play the long game. Big Garbage realizes that today’s capacity surplus may result in a near-term race to the bottom in terms of pricing. How else to explain that some western states transport their trash to our backyard rather than address the issue at home? However, at some point, as other states continue to reduce landfill capacity, close existing sites and decline new facilities, Pennsylvania’s excess landfill capacity will be the only game in town. Landfills know this and are preparing for it. A few years to get a permit and a few years of suboptimal pricing is rational trade-off for a multi-decade trash-cash annuity.
Unfortunately, for the residents of Pennsylvania, we cannot afford to lose this game. After nearly 40 years, we know the game plan. The data is clear. And without change, the road will result in only one destination: Pennsylvania will irreversibly cement its reputation as America’s dump.
The challenge at hand, and the call to action, is clear. Will our elected officials stand up for the future of Pennsylvania? Who will change the narrative from the state that forever took everyone’s trash to the state that led the way to a brighter future? Who is going to finally stop kicking the can down the road, address the situation and rewrite our legacy before it is too late? A journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step. Denying Keystone Sanitary Landfill’s proposed expansion would be a monumental step in the