We have a trash problem, and HERC is part of the solution

Updated: July 12, 2016 - 4:12 pm

More than 1 million tons of waste is generated by residents and businesses in Hennepin County every year. Add up all this waste and it’s enough to fill Target Field 11 times. Despite our progress in reducing waste and increasing recycling, we still have a problem with waste.

We have two options for managing the trash that remains after recycling and composting: bury it or burn it. Hennepin County burns garbage to generate energy at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Facility (HERC) in downtown Minneapolis. HERC is just one part of the county’s comprehensive waste management system to prevent waste or reduce, recycle and compost it.

Inside the HERC. File photo
Inside the HERC. File photo

Only 46 percent of waste recycled or composted in 2015

About 46 percent of the waste generated in the county was recycled or composted in 2015. The recycling rate has slowly and steadily increased in recent years, but we have a long way to go to reach our goal of recycling 75 percent of waste by 2030.

Hennepin County is committed to making recycling as convenient as possible and expanding opportunities to compost. We offer grants, educational materials and professional staff assistance to improve recycling at businesses, schools, apartment buildings and public spaces. We support residential recycling and composting programs by providing funding and education materials to cities. And we provide residents opportunities to prevent and properly dispose of waste through programs like our Fix-It Clinics, drop-off facilities and battery collection programs.

75 percent of waste at HERC is from Minneapolis

Burning the remaining garbage to generate energy at facilities like HERC is better for the environment than landfills for several reasons.

HERC generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than landfills. Waste in landfills continues to decompose, producing methane — a potent greenhouse gas — and organic compounds. This makes landfills a problem for decades. Additionally, waste delivered to HERC is being managed close to where it is produced, minimizing truck traffic and the associated truck emissions. Seventy-five percent of waste delivered to HERC comes from residents and businesses located in Minneapolis.

HERC has a better system to control and capture air pollutants than landfills. This includes equipment to control nitrogen oxides that contribute to smog, acid gases like sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid, particulate matter, and mercury and other heavy metals. Unlike landfills, where the barrier to protect groundwater is buried and it can take years to detect and find a leak, HERC’s air pollution control equipment is monitored 24/7 to ensure it is operating effectively.

HERC: Less than 1 percent of all air emissions in Hennepin

HERC operates under federal and state air pollution regulations. HERC’s air emissions are on average 80 percent below permitted levels from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and emissions from HERC account for less than 1 percent of all air emissions in the county. In contrast, about 90 percent of the air pollution in Hennepin County comes from cars, trucks, heavy equipment, lawn equipment, and other sources like backyard fire pits, dry cleaners and restaurant exhaust systems.

HERC also generates more energy and recycles more metals from the trash than landfills. A ton of waste processed at HERC creates enough electricity to run a house for 21 days plus steam to heat Target Field and downtown Minneapolis. A ton of waste buried in a landfill only creates enough electricity to run a house for three days. More than 11,000 tons of scrap metal is recovered from the waste stream at HERC and recycled annually. This is more than all of the metal collected for recycling in a year in residential recycling programs in Hennepin County. In contrast, metals are not recovered from waste delivered to landfills.

Landfills are forever

There are more than 200 landfill sites in the state. We’re going to spend taxpayer money — forever — managing these sites. For example, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spent $7.8 million in 2015 to minimize environmental contamination to our water and air from the three closed landfills in Hennepin County — located in Eden Prairie, Hopkins and Medina — even though they have been closed for more than 20 years.

All of these reasons are why state law says that landfills should only be used as a last resort when no other recycling, composting or waste-to-energy options are feasible. Hennepin County will continue to use a variety of strategies to minimize the amount of waste going to landfills, and increase recycling to meet our goals and address our waste problem.

Linda Higgins is a Hennepin County commissioner.