One of the most important categories of solid waste, as shown on my waste map, is “municipal solid waste” (often abbreviated as “MSW”). This is the waste that comes from households, the “trash” you take to the curb (and that your parents may have had picked up from behind their house). It’s the waste most people think of when they hear the term “garbage” or, for that matter, “solid waste.” But when you toss out that old paint can with some paint still in it, or that spent battery, or the expired pharmaceuticals, or burned out light bulbs, or many other things in a typical house, the substance you are discarding might well have been “hazardous waste” if it had come straight from the facility that produced it. Why is the same waste substance considered MSW on one hand and “hazardous waste” on the other? The care (and thus the costs) with which these two waste streams are disposed are quite different. This is the way environmental laws work: by drawing lines that may make sense mostly in a certain political context, the context of “what can get passed by Congress or the General Assembly.”
As the waste map shows, the lines around “what is municipal solid waste” are quite complicated. Notice first that the category overlaps the big divide between “hazardous” and “nonhazardous” waste. This reflects the question noted above: certain substances, if disposed of by a household, and thus in limited quantities, are treated as non-hazardous (like paint), but the same substance if disposed of by a paint producer could well be hazardous. It also reflects the fact that waste from a municipal solid waste landfill itself, namely the leachate created when water drains through the landfill, can be “hazardous waste.” The federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA, passed in 1976, codified at 42 U.S.C. §§ 6901-6992k) created the distinction between “hazardous waste,” which must be regulated from “cradle to grave,” and nonhazardous solid waste, including MSW. Prior to RCRA, federal law in the United States (the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965) had very little bite to it when it came to solid waste.
Other interesting line-drawing problems in the law of municipal solid waste are waste streams for “white goods” (a name for discarded appliances, such as refrigerators), scrap tires, and land-clearing and inert debris. Not shown on this map, but similarly important as a subset of municipal solid waste that requires special handling, are electronic goods such as old TVs and computers. A final special category, really an entire set of special categories which includes some of the previously mentioned waste streams, is created by the many state waste bans in place:
G.S. 130A-309.10(f) No person shall knowingly dispose of the following solid wastes in landfills:
(1) Repealed by Session Laws 1991, c. 375, s. 1.
(2) Used oil.
(3) Yard trash, except in landfills approved for the disposal of yard trash under rules adopted by the Commission. Yard trash that is source separated from solid waste may be accepted at a solid waste disposal area where the area provides and maintains separate yard trash composting facilities.
(4) White goods.
(5) Antifreeze (ethylene glycol).
(6) Aluminum cans.
(7) Whole scrap tires, as provided in G.S. 130A-309.58(b). The prohibition on disposal of whole scrap tires in landfills applies to all whole pneumatic rubber coverings, but does not apply to whole solid rubber coverings.
(8) Lead-acid batteries, as provided in G.S. 130A-309.70.
(9) Repealed by Session Laws 2011-394, s. 4, effective July 1, 2011.
(10) Motor vehicle oil filters.
(11) Recyclable rigid plastic containers that are required to be labeled as provided in subsection (e) of this section, that have a neck smaller than the body of the container, and that accept a screw top, snap cap, or other closure. The prohibition on disposal of recyclable rigid plastic containers in landfills does not apply to rigid plastic containers that are intended for use in the sale or distribution of motor oil or pesticides.
(12) Wooden pallets, except that wooden pallets may be disposed of in a landfill that is permitted to only accept construction and demolition debris.
(13) Oyster shells.
(14) Discarded computer equipment, as defined in G.S. 130A-309.131.
(15) Discarded televisions, as defined in G.S. 130A-309.131.
Local government has a long history of ordinances and other attempts to regulate trash. For an excellent early history of American public solid waste services see Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 175–204. Prof. Melosi tells the the story, for example, of medieval Paris, whose leaders realized they had to get regulations in place on dumping of trash when the unregulated piles dumped outside the city walls grew so large they became useful high ground for attackers to use when laying siege to the city.
RCRA itself prohibits the establishment of new open dumps (essentially unregulated disposal sites), requires that existing open dumps be closed (but actually accomplishing that took great effort, political capital, and is still a work in progress), and requires that all solid waste be disposed of in sanitary landfills, be used for resource recovery, or otherwise be disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. The United States’s Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) landfill rules under RCRA go beyond these statutory provisions by requiring monitoring, leachate collection, effective liners, financial responsibility, and closure and postclosure care, among other restrictions on the design and operation of municipal solid waste disposal facilities.
As with the other major federal environmental statutes, North Carolina passed its own set of solid waste statutes (primarily in G.S. chapter 130A) and rules. The State rulemaking body for solid waste, from the time of RCRA until 2014, was the Commission for Public Health. This reflects the longer State role in trying to get a handle on solid waste handling. Since the 1930s, the public health system of North Carolina treated solid waste as one of the various public health concerns, and the State Board of Health’s Sanitary Engineering Division gave technical assistance on waste disposal. In 2014, the legislature moved rulemaking responsibility for solid waste management to the Environmental Management Commission, reflecting the evolution of concern about solid waste from a purely public health matter to a broader set of environmental concerns.
Beginning with Senate Bill 111 in 1989, the General Assembly began to enact legislation that comprehensively regulates solid waste management by local governments. County governments are primarily responsible for the disposal of solid wastes, but cities are also involved, some more than others. Most cities are responsible for day-today collection. Counties can adopt solid waste management ordinances, and the ordinance is an essential part of the county’s management program. Counties were charged with responsibility for meeting a state goal of 40 percent reduction of the solid waste stream between July 1, 1991, and June 30, 2001. Only one county, Orange, met this goal. Overall, per capita generation of solid waste grew statewide in this ten-year period by 12 percent, despite the local plans, and it continues to grow. Counties can (and some do) license or franchise private haulers and disposers of solid waste.