Energy & Environment

Ebb and Flow: Counties With Big Win On Trash

Where does local garbage go? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April that cities and counties can mandate that trash, haulers bring the waste they collect to publicly owned landfills.
by | July 2007

Where does local garbage go? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April that cities and counties can mandate that trash, haulers bring the waste they collect to publicly owned landfills.

Private waste companies had argued that Oneida and Herkimer counties in New York, which had adopted "flow control" ordinances to build a regional system for recycling, composting and reducing landfill use, were violating the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against interstate commerce. "Local control creates a local monopoly which is insulated from free-market competition," says David Biderman, general counsel of the National Solid Wastes Management Association.

The Court rejected that argument, noting that the counties treat in- state and out-of-state companies exactly the same. The 1994 Carbone decision had stripped local governments of authority to regulate the flow of trash to private facilities, but the Court this time decided that directing trash to publicly owned landfills fell within their rights, holding that local governments have "important responsibilities" involving health and safety that set them apart from private entities.

The decision could lead more local governments to impose "flow control," directing more trash to environmentally-friendly facilities that they run. But localities control only about 17 percent of permanent landfill space in this country, compared with about half during the 1980s. "This decision is going to have limited impact nationally," Biderman predicts.

Julie Ufner, of the National Association of Counties, calls the decision "a big win for local governments," but cautions that waste haulers may lobby Congress to pass a law that would in effect overturn it.

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