Sophie Wang holds a sign outside of the Hennepin County Government Center on August 15, 2023, depicting the smokestacks of the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center injecting smoke into a pair of lungs. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

Scores of activists packed the August 15 Hennepin County Board of Commissioners meeting to demand a closure plan for the downtown Minneapolis incinerator that burns 45 percent of the trash generated in the state’s largest county. 

Medical doctors joined environmental justice advocates to rally against pollution from the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, known as the HERC, and called for a timeline to shutter the waste-to-energy facility, which burns trash that creates steam to generate electricity. Physicians who practice in north Minneapolis say they see the impacts of high pollution in their patients, who often have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. 

“I do think shutting down the HERC is vital,” Loretta Akpala, a resident physician at a north Minneapolis clinic, testified at the board meeting. 

Public pressure against the HERC is mounting. The Minnesota Legislature passed laws chipping away at the incinerator this year. The bonding bill requires Hennepin County to submit a plan to close the HERC in order to receive $26 million in state funding for an organics recycling facility. Legislation signed this year compelling the state to provide 100 percent clean energy by 2040 includes provisions to no longer label the HERC a source of renewable energy, which prevents the incinerator from receiving clean energy tax credits. 

Noelle Cirisan and Eva Garcia hold signs protesting the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in the courtyard of the Hennepin County Government Center on August 15, 2023. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

But a draft plan the state released in June laying out the next 20 years of waste management in the Twin Cities metropolitan area views incinerators like the HERC as an asset and superior solution to disposing of trash in landfills. 

The draft plan from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) aims to divert 75 percent of waste from landfills and incinerators by 2030 in Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, and Washington counties. Today, the seven-county metro diverts 45 percent of its waste through recycling. 

Getting there will be a challenge. The metro generated 3.3 million tons of waste in 2021, that figure is expected to rise to 3.9 million tons by 2042. 

To reach diversion goals, state officials say the metro must prioritize waste reduction and double down on making recycling easier and more accessible for residents and businesses. 

“Our ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of waste going to energy facilities or landfills as low as possible,” said Kirk Koudelka, Assistant Commissioner of Land Policy and Strategic Initiatives with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

Waste hierarchy 

The MPCA creates a new Metropolitan Solid Waste Management Plan every six years. The current draft plan released earlier this year is accepting public comment through September 17. The plan will be finalized this winter.  

The plan emphasizes a “waste hierarchy” established in a 1980 state law that prioritizes waste reduction, reuse, and recycling waste. But the hierarchy prefers waste-to-energy incinerators over landfills, a stance activists strongly oppose. 

There are two incinerators in the metro, the HERC and the Ramsey/Washington Recycling and Energy Center in Newport. A small amount of metro waste is also burned at Red Wing’s municipal facility. 

The draft report includes a policy to “assure county commissioners understand the importance of supporting and maintaining WTE (waste-to-energy) facilities.” 

“This is crazy,” said Nazir Khan, co-founder of the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table. “We’re in the middle of a climate criss and we’re fighting with Minnesota’s pollution control agency about burning trash.” 

Today, state law calls for the metro to divert waste from landfills to incinerators when possible, according to Evan Mulholland, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. 

It’s a similar battle to one zero waste advocates are waging with Hennepin County: the government agencies believe that incinerators are preferable to landfills for disposing of trash. The Environmental Protection Agency lists incinerators as a better solution than landfills for trash management, though the federal hierarchy is currently being updated. 

Although landfills are sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, many environmentalists disagree with the notion that incinerators are better. Incinerators burn trash, which creates pollution that harms surrounding residents, they argue. 

The HERC is a source of pollutants such as furans, a volatile organic compound; it emitted 403 tons of nitrogen oxide in 2021. The locations of incinerators should also be factored in, advocates say. The HERC is located on the northern edge of downtown Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood adjacent to population hubs downtown and the near north side, which has a high concentration of people of color. 

The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, pictured in April 2023, is widely known as the HERC and manages 365,000 tons of trash each year—about 45 percent of all waste produced in the county. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“It’s really a dangerous and ongoing experiment being run on the residents of north Minneapolis and the surrounding area,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a scientist with Science for the People Twin Cities, a nonprofit organization.  

Recycling and reduction 

No matter where the trash goes, experts say that too much of what is disposed of in landfills and burned today could be recycled and resold as raw materials. In 2021, the metro area threw away more than $143 million worth of recyclable materials, said Koudelka, the MPCA assistant commissioner. 

The MPCA estimates that about two-thirds of what is thrown in the trash today could be recycled, with food waste being a prime area for increased diversion to organics recycling or composting. 

Hennepin County recently adopted a zero waste plan, aiming to go beyond metro area goals by diverting 90 percent of all waste from landfills and incinerators. While some say that’s too lofty a goal, Hennepin County supervising environmentalist Carolyn Collopy says it’s possible. 

“When you look at the earth, with no humans there is no waste—everything is used. And we can do that,” Collopy said. 

She agrees that the clearest path to reduction is stepping up efforts in organics recycling to get food waste out of landfills and incinerators. 

The MPCA draft plan aims for a 5 percent reduction in waste generation by 2042. Critics say that’s not ambitious enough. Lucy Mullany is director of policy and advocacy for Eureka Recycling, a nonprofit that handles most recycling in the Twin Cities. She said the plan should scale up its goals to match places like New York, which aims to reduce waste by 85 percent by 2050. 

The biggest challenge to waste reduction is the reality of mass consumption in the United States. 

“We also need to make those systematic changes,” Kouldelka said. 

Both the MPCA and Hennepin County want the Legislature to pass an extended producer responsibility law. These laws, which exist in states like California and Maine, put more onus on manufacturers to produce products using materials with viable recycling markets. 

Making products that are actually recyclable is important in an age when sustainability branding should be taken with a grain of salt. Mullany said effective recycling is becoming harder due to misleading labeling, like the three arrow recycling symbol that is plastered over non-recyclable materials such as plastic padding in Amazon packages. 

“Reuse and repair is really where we close the circle,” Mullany said.  

The state draft plan does call for an increase in repair and restoring old goods, Kouldelka said. Counties will be encouraged to hold more “fix-it clinics,” where people can bring in broken items for repair. Hennepin County holds monthly fix-it clinics; the next one is scheduled for October 14 at the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis.

Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Increased education 

An important step is getting people who don’t recycle to start. The MPCA says that more education outreach is necessary, and is recommending increasing recycling collection to weekly instead of every other week. The draft plan calls for more organics recycling collection and for making it easier for people to recycle electronics and other speciality items. 

Hennepin County is trying to boost recycling in multifamily residential buildings. Apartment buildings are required to offer recycling in the county, but compliance and keeping low contamination is a challenge, Collopy said. 

To combat that, the county recently launched its Apartment Champions program. The program recruited apartment building residents to help promote recycling among their neighbors, according to Andre Xiong, a Hennepin County environmentalist who is coordinating the program. 

Recycling rates tend to be lower at apartment buildings, Xiong siad. A key lesson his team has learned is that communities want to learn from their friends and neighbors, which can help address cultural and language barriers. 

The program recruited 25 champions and is giving them a $1,500 stipend over six months to promote recycling in their buildings. The buildings range in size from 300 to 60 units, and are mostly located in environmental justice areas where most residents are people of color or low-income, Xiong said. 

It’s helped county staff realize that many residents might want to recycle, but have other pressing challenges. 

“It’s eye-opening that people have struggles that make recycling very low on the totem pole,” Xiong said. 

Some buildings are easier to work with than others. One champion’s goal was to establish recycling at their building, but the property management company wasn’t interested and told county staff to fine them instead, Xiong said. 

There are champions who go door-to-door and spread the recycling gospel, but Xiong said the best results seem to come out of small tabling events that catch people coming and going from the buildings. 

But you don’t need to be a champion to access resources; anyone can go to the county’s website for informational resources, or ask county staff to visit their building to talk about recycling, Xiong said. 

Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...