The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) is seen in front of the Minneapolis skyline. The trash-to-energy incinerator has been controversial since it was built in the late 1980s. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

When Minnesota’s largest county approved an ambitious climate action plan last spring, environmental justice advocates saw a glaring shortcoming: no timeline for closing the trash incinerator in Minneapolis. 

Hennepin County pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and to mitigate the disparities in pollution experienced by people of color and low-income residents. But it didn’t promise to close the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, better known as the HERC, a trash-to-energy incinerator that burns most of Minneapolis’ waste. 

The HERC is a source of air pollution in Minneapolis, according to Minnesota Pollution Control Agency data. It produced 173,254 tons of carbon dioxide, 404 tons of nitrogen oxide, and 21 tons of PM2.5—tiny particles of matter produced by crushing and burning— in 2019.

While those amounts are below levels permitted by the state, activists say who experiences that pollution matters. Since its construction in 1989, environmental justice advocates have consistently criticized its location in the North Loop neighborhood, adjacent to north Minneapolis. The facility burns trash to create steam, which generates electricity sold to Xcel Energy and used to power its nextdoor neighbor, Target Field, and about 25,000 homes. 

Now, Hennepin County officials are focusing on a new initiative, the zero-waste plan, which seeks to divert 90 percent of all materials from landfills and incinerators.

“This is a big opportunity for the county to put in place a careful, detailed plan,” said Nazir Khan, an organizer with the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table, a nonprofit working to close the seven incinerators burning trash in Minnesota. 

The HERC produced 173,254 tons of carbon dioxide, 404 tons of nitrogen oxide, and 21 tons of PM2.5—tiny particles of matter produced by crushing and burning— in 2019. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

A seat at the table 

Khan and other members of the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table will have a chance to shape that plan through a partnership with the nonprofit Community Power, which is one of 18 organizations selected by the county to assist in engaging residents about the zero-waste campaign. The groups include environmental, neighborhood, and immigrant advocacy organizations including Climate Generation, Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, Ebenezer Oromo Evangelical Church, Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota, Northside Residents Redevelopment Council, and the Somali American Women Action Center. Hennepin County is paying each group $15,000 to do community outreach starting in March.  

The county hired Antonia Apolinário-Wilcoxon, a Brazilian woman of African descent who formerly worked for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, to coordinate the community engagement process. Immigrants and people of color were historically left out of discussions to shape these plans, Apolinário-Wilcoxon said, but she believes this plan will be different. 

“In the climate issue we have to come together,” she said. 

Her plan is to use those 18 organizations as trusted messengers to various communities within Hennepin County. The goal, she said, is to make people feel their time is well spent and their voices are heard. 

Getting to zero waste

Today, 42 percent of all waste in Hennepin County is diverted from landfills and the HERC by recycling, or food waste organics recycling, according to Carolyn Collopy, a waste reduction and recycling specialist. The state requires all counties to submit a new solid waste plan every six years. Hennepin County’s current goal is to divert 75 percent of all waste by 2030. The zero waste plan would accelerate that, Collopy said. That leaves just a few years to make strides toward zero waste. 

 “We’ve really got to move beyond what we’ve done traditionally,” Collopy said.  

Reaching that milestone would help the county hit its emission reduction targets by reducing methane gas emissions from landfills and the carbon dioxide and small particulate matter pollution from the HERC. 

To get there, the county is targeting food waste by connecting more residents to curbside organics recycling. Starting this year, all cities in the county are required to offer the service to households served by traditional recycling. Food waste is the largest source of material sent to landfills and the HERC by weight, Collopy said. 

Getting large apartment and condominium buildings to adopt organics recycling is a critical component of that. Today, curbside organic recycling is limited to buildings with four units or fewer in Minneapolis. Big buildings often struggle to get residents to properly do traditional recycling, Collopy said, and many property managers are wary of adding recycling of organics.. However, “there’s nothing stopping a property manager from calling their hauler and asking for the service.”

But the largest challenge to reaching zero waste is somewhat beyond county control. American production and consumption trends produce a lot of waste, Collopy said. Many products are made to last five years or so, and then begin to break down. Laws regulating packaging standards and plastic production will be needed to transform society into one in which more is reused and less is consumed. 

“We need bigger changes on the policy level,” Collopy said.  

There’s no set commitment to closing the HERC at this time in the planning process. But environmental justice advocates say there should be. In Minnesota, trash to energy incinerators are considered a form of renewable energy. Experts say that’s a mistake. 

County leaders say the HERC is not a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. In the climate action plan, county officials say the HERC produces less pollution than traditional landfills, recaptures scrap metals, and lowers transportation impacts by being closer to the source of trash. 

But environmental justice advocates argue that people of color and low-income families bear the brunt of the pollution. The facilities are major producers of carbon dioxide and particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5). These are essentially tiny toxic, inhalable particles stemming from various chemical sources, often produced by burning. A report released last summer found the majority of plastic waste in Minneapolis is thrown in the trash and then burned in the HERC

“The priority still needs to be shutting down that facility as soon as possible,” Khan said.

Andrew Hazzard is a 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 returned...