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Hennepin County Switches Gears from Requesting Trash Burning to Encouraging Composting

Minneapolis’ Hennepin County has dropped a five-year-old request to burn more waste at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center. Instead, the county wants to encourage organics collection and composting.

“This resolution represents our effort to move on with our solid-waste plan,” County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said, according to the Star-Tribune.

The goal is to shrink the estimated 1.4 million tons of solid waste produced yearly in Hennepin County. Studies have shown a third of the waste that goes into landfills is organic.

McLaughlin and the county had been pushing to increase the burning of waste rather than dumping it into landfills. While the county runs HERC, it needs City Hall approval to burn more garbage. Some legislators, city leaders and residents resisted, citing concerns about emissions, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has been conducting an environmental assessment of the increased burning.

McLaughlin said he got a letter from 14 legislators who oppose more HERC burning, so it’s time to “move on” and “deal with the mountain of garbage we’re throwing in a hole.”

In exchange for dropping its bid to burn more trash, the county wants to see plans this spring from Minneapolis and other larger cities on how they will move toward more organics collection and composting. The cities must decide what constitutes organics, who participates in its collection, how it’s done and who pays for it.

According to the Star-Tribune, the change in gears came as a surprise. Moreover, there are questions as to whether the new plan can be implemented in less than 11 months. According to the paper, “McLaughlin denied that retaliatory politics played any part in his proposal. But its message appears clear: The city won’t let the county burn more trash, so the county is demanding that the city reduce landfill waste through organics composting.”

Since 2009, the county had requested increasing burning at HERC by 10 percent, to 100 percent of its capacity. But city officials from Minneapolis raised environmental concerns and state officials undertook a study to see if trash burning would have any negative impacts.

According to the Star-Tribune:

“McLaughlin and the county had argued that increased incineration was better than putting garbage in a landfill, saying that aligned with MPCA goals. When working at capacity, the 27-year-old HERC can turn 1,212 tons of trash into heat and electricity per day.”

Increased burning would have brought an additional $1 million into the county’s Solid Waste Fund, which is used for green initiatives. The HERC also heats part of downtown and coils under Target Field.

Last year, 140,000 tons of waste went to Twin Cities landfills. About 30 percent of that waste is organic material, according to an MPCA report.

According to KARE11, environmental advocates had been pressuring city officials to reject the proposal. KARE11 also pointed out that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is considering changing the rules on composting after undertaking a recent study that showed nearly a third of the trash Minnesotans sent to landfills in 2012 was compostable.

Trash burning has been a topic of debate for years.

One of the concerns is short-lived climate pollutants that can be produced by open fires in landfills. As a Nancy Mann Jackson wrote in a piece for Waste360 in November:

This group of pollutants, which includes black carbon, methane and some hydrofluorocarbons, have been grouped together because they remain in the atmosphere for much shorter periods of time than carbon but reducing them can lead to more immediate environmental benefits. For instance, black carbon, which can come from open fires in landfills, lasts three to eight days in the atmosphere, while tropospheric ozone lasts four to 18 days and methane persists for 12 years.

“It will take hundreds of years to see the impact of reducing CO2 today, but reducing SLCPs has a more immediate impact since black carbon remains in the atmosphere for a number of days and weeks and methane for years,” says Nimmi Damodaran, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Stratus Consulting, an environmental research and consulting firm. “We still have to stay on track to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but if we can immediately reduce the pollutants that have shorter lifetimes, we can see results more quickly.”
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