Interstate Waste Commerce

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For more than two decades, various states and localities have battled over interstate and intrastate movements of municipal solid waste. States have passed import bans, out-of-state trash taxes, and other policies to block imports. Localities have passed laws preempting the movement of wastes outside their boundaries for disposal under so-called flow-control laws. Federal courts have struck down both types of laws as protectionist policies that violate the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which gives only Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce. Yet some federal lawmakers want to pass a federal law to give states the authority to regulate trade in the waste disposal industry. 

Congress has attempted to deal with this issue on several occasions, starting with the 1992 attempt to reauthorize the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Bills dealing with interstate commerce and flow control have been advanced during every Congress since 1992, but none have passed into law. The issue heated up in the late 1990s when New York City decided to send increasing amounts of waste to Virginia for disposal. When localities agreed to take the waste to collect “host fees,” state legislators objected. As a result, several bills were introduced in Congress that would institute complicated schemes under which state lawmakers could regulate waste imports and flow control. Since then, members of Congress have continued to introduce legislation to regulate interstate waste disposal. In 2005, Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-VA) introduced H.R. 274, which allows shipments to “host communities,” but it applies needless regulatory red tape and bureaucracy that could complicate such agreements.

In recent years, many communities chose to host regional landfills, agreeing to allow waste imports in exchange for free trash disposal and a cut of the landfill profits. These agreements have enabled communities nationwide to cut taxes, repair and upgrade infrastructure, give pay raises to teachers, and build schools and courthouses, as well as close and clean up old, substandard landfills.