This Week in…Wisconsin’s Future

One of most pressing issues facing Wisconsin residents in the future is how to deal with our recycling and waste strategies. Historically, Wisconsin residents have been national leaders for recycling and keeping garbage out of landfills. But beyond stuffing your cans and bottles in the blue barrel instead of the gray one, what can the average Wisconsinite do about this problem? According to Rep. Larry Balow of Eau Claire (D) Wisconsin should increase the amount it charges waste haulers to dump garbage in state landfills–boost Wisconsin’s “tipping fee” from 30 cents a ton of garbage to $10 a ton. Granted, landfill management is not a hot-button issue for most residents, but the facts surrounding solid waste policies make clear that something must be changed in the way we handle our trash:

  • Wisconsin charges dramatically less than its neighbors to dump trash in its backyard. According to a recent Legislative Audit Bureau report, the cost of dumping garbage in Wisconsin averages $38 a ton, compared with $55 in Minnesota and $44 in Illinois. The proposed change would likely increase the average to about $50 a ton in Wisconsin–more even with our neighbors.
  • Why is it important to be even with our neighbors? Because, with the current nominal tipping fee, the combined cost of dumping garbage in Wisconsin and the cost of driving it here is less than the cost of just dumping it in Illinois, for example. Wisconsin is rapidly becoming the Midwest’s dumping grounds. In fact, each year, the amount of garbage imported into Wisconsin from its neighbors is roughly equal to the waste created by all Wisconsin residents combined in the same year (1.5 million tons), according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Simply put, leveling the playing field would reduce the amount of trash dumped on Wisconsin by other states.
  • Believe it or not, we haven’t even discussed the meat of the problem yet. According to the DNR, roughly a staggering two-thirds of the garbage entering Wisconsin’s landfills in a given year comes from Wisconsin industry. Raising the tipping fee would provide a nice economic incentive for Wisconsin industry to clean up its act–less wasteful strategies and recycling would become more appealing.
  • The potential downside, of course, would be a tax hike for Wisconsin property owners. However, since Wisconsin residents only produce a fraction of the state’s garbage, they would only bear a fraction of the cost increase. Last year, Wisconsin earned $1.8 million from the 30-cent tipping fee, according to the Non-Partisan Fiscal Bureau. If raised to $10 a ton, that number would be more like $57 million a year, and would be used to fund municipal recycling programs and “translate into direct property tax relief,” according to Rep. Balow. In short, Wisconsin residents, while bearing only a fraction of the direct cost, would realize nearly all of the benefits of this potential source of revenue.
  • Of course, this isn’t just a simple question of economics. More garbage in landfills means a poorer environment and all the concurrent consequences–unclean water, dirty air, rising costs in health care, the interconnections abound.

Recklessly filling our landfills with garbage, especially from other states, is both fiscally shortsighted and environmentally irresponsible. Balow’s proposed legislation is one potential way to ameliorate this problem facing Wisconsin, but certainly not the only one. Log on to our briefing papers pages for comprehensive analysis of the options available to residents of the state.

Sources: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Legislative Audit Bureau report Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Legislative Fiscal Bureau