Titans of Trash
How is it that waste treatment--such an integral part of daily life and environmental health--is overseen by a handful of corporations that can ignore these realities? As of 2003, the country's top three garbage firms controlled more than 40 percent of the almost $45 billion market. And beneath their greenwashed veneers, these firms are mostly concerned with revenues. Their dominance has come about thanks to a dramatic industry restructuring in the past thirty years in which garbage conglomerates took over the waste business, rolling up mom-and-pop outfits and shoving publicly owned operations to the sidelines.
Two early players in the corporatization of garbage were WMI and Browning-Ferris Industries. These giants spearheaded the sector's consolidation, buying out smaller firms in towns across the Sunbelt, then spreading north and into international markets. In building their empires, WMI and BFI also took their trash public, offering stocks to raise revenues, diverging sharply from previous industry norms. And in the 1990s a handful of newly powerful corporations like Allied Waste Industries and USA Waste Services followed WMI and BFI into the staggeringly profitable world of high-volume trash.
Viewed from the outside, this momentum appeared to hit a snag when, in 1991 the EPA instituted tighter controls for landfills. While further regulation may have seemed like a good move for the environment and an obstacle for the garbage corporations, in reality the big players benefited. The measure, known as Subtitle D, required all landfills to protect against groundwater and air pollution by converting to "dry tomb" technology; this entailed the costly installation of liners, along with gas and liquid leachate collection and monitoring systems. The big trash firms liked Subtitle D because it created barriers to entry for their less capitalized, smaller rivals and would price out many municipalities, facilitating yet further consolidation of the waste industry.
With their competitors on the ropes, the conglomerates went on a buying spree, plucking up defunct dumps to upgrade and opening new disposal sites in regional hubs like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Michigan. Here the trash corporations built mammoth new "mega-fills," giant disposal sites fully outfitted with all the required monitoring equipment.
During this time, the overall number of landfills nationwide declined as substandard dumps were shuttered. But meanwhile, under the conglomerates, actual burial capacity soared. Whereas yesterday's landfills could take in anywhere from dozens to several hundred tons of refuse daily, new mega-fills could handle thousands of tons per day. This facilitated another shift in the industry, toward the inequitable exporting of wastes across state lines, mostly from urban centers like New York City to economically hollowed-out rural regions nearby.
Under the current regime, corporations are in charge of treating a huge portion of US household discards. With their colossal budgets and the political power they therefore wield, the trash giants exercise considerable influence over the way garbage will be treated in the coming decades. And they aren't investing in waste-reduction, recycling or composting technologies in any significant way, although these are proven, ecologically sound methods. The bioreactor, with its dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, represents the latest effort by these firms to keep the spent, used and broken riches of our society pouring into the landfill.
Eliminating obstacles to accumulation has long been the goal of US business--whether it's in manufacturing or waste disposal--and has led to a profoundly antienvironmental, undemocratic system. With increasing corporate ownership of garbage treatment and disposal, the public has been denied a meaningful role in devising better ways to reduce and recycle our wastes. Concern about profits and expanding markets, not human and environmental health, is what drives how we handle our garbage today.