Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Garbage burning emits significant amounts of toxic pollutants, particulates

Hennepin County is moving ahead with a plan to increase burning by 20 percent at the downtown Minneapolis incinerator.

Shawn Lawrence Otto’s recent Community Voices commentary attacking “urban liberals and left leaning environmental groups” misrepresents basic scientific and political fact. His missive in support of garbage burning repeats 40-year-old discredited industry talking points, and paints an inaccurate picture of incineration opponents.

With regard to air pollutants, Otto claims that incinerators emit “near zero” air emissions. In fact, incinerators account for significant emissions of some of the most toxic air pollutants on the planet. Incinerators are a major emitter of fine particulates and add climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recently identified 118 point sources of criteria pollutants in the city of Minneapolis. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines these pollutants as having significant health and environmental effects. The downtown Minneapolis garbage burner ranked in the top five sources of key criteria pollutants in the city of Minneapolis, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, particulates and sulfur dioxide.

Even the air pollution data Otto cites indicate that incinerators fail to capture over 75 percent of NoX, a key factor contributing to climate change. Recent data from the EPA confirms that incineration emits more greenhouse gasses than coal-fired power plants on a per-capita basis.

chart of emissions

Otto argues that incinerators lead to higher recycling rates, yet that claim is unsubstantiated in Minnesota’s largest city and county. Minneapolis recycles a paltry 18 percent of its waste, and Hennepin County’s recycling numbers fall below state goals. Hennepin County’s recycling rate has remained flat over the 24 years of the downtown garbage burner’s operations.

Over half of what is burned at the county facility consists of office paper, cardboard, newspaper and food waste — all items that should be recycled and not burned. Minnesota’s Climate Change Advisory Group called on the state to recycle and compost 75 percent of its waste by 2025 in order to make a substantive impact on climate change. This is an achievable goal if state and local governments invested in recycling and food-waste composting collection, rather than expanding burning. Incineration is a particularly inefficient way to produce energy and creates minimal economic activity compared to recycling.

weight fractions table

Covanta Energy, 2007

Otto’s claim that incinerator ash is nontoxic reads like Orwellian science fiction. The combustion process concentrates dangerous heavy metals found in garbage. These pollutants — including lead, cadmium, mercury and chromium — are emitted into the air or contained in large quantities of ash. Fully one-third of the weight of garbage entering an incinerator is dumped in a landfill.

Under Minnesota law, ash is considered so dangerous that special landfills are required to dispose of it. A 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision confirmed as much, with Justice Antonin Scalia (hardly a liberal, left-leaning environmentalist) writing the 7-2 majority opinion.

In addition to getting the science wrong, Otto also misses the mark on the politics of incineration. His sweeping generalization regarding the geographic and political orientation of incinerator opponents as “urban liberals” is not accurate. Three high-profile incineration fights in Minnesota prove the opposite. Residents of rural Dakota County turned back a plan to burn 600 tons of waste per day with the support of a key Republican legislator and several conservative county board members. Citizens of exurban Dayton, Minn., successfully fought a misguided plan to use incinerator ash as road paving material with the help of a conservative mayor, area Republican legislators, and a coalition of both liberal and conservative Hennepin County board members.

Otto’s political analysis is further weakened by the fact that it was two leading liberal South Minneapolis county commissioners who championed construction of the downtown burner, while two moderate county commissioners from Northeast Minneapolis and suburban communities opposed it. Local battles against incineration and ash landfills often transcend traditional party politics. Liberals and conservatives alike have found common ground in fighting these dangerous projects, often peddled by distant corporate polluters and well-heeled lobbyists.

Hennepin County is moving ahead with a plan to increase burning by 20 percent at the downtown incinerator. This ill-conceived plan is strongly opposed by a diverse group of organizations, particularly those concerned with public health and environmental justice. The burner’s effects fall disproportionately on low-income neighborhoods and people of color.

The Minneapolis City Council will soon debate whether to grant the burner a conditional use permit. Council members should follow the advice of the Minneapolis Planning Commission and reject the application. Incineration is a 1980s solution to a 21st-century problem.

Political leaders and candidates for public office this year should embrace a zero-waste solution through recycling and composting rather than promoting garbage incinerators and their toxic effects on our health and environment.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, represents District 61a in the Minnesota House of Representatives. He is the chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee and serves on the House Energy Policy Committee. Hornstein was formerly the co-director of Clean Water Action Alliance in Minnesota.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Shawn Otto on 06/13/2013 - 08:20 am.

    Reduce, reuse, recycle, and then what?

    I have been on the front lines of the climate change discussion for two decades. I deal with it in my book and I live in a green home with a wind generator in my yard. One thing that I frequently run into when I debate right-wing climate change deniers is that when their argument becomes weak they attack me personally. It is not pleasant or comfortable but it is part of trying to change minds. With all due respect to my friend Frank Hornstein, who is one of our great public servants, such ad hominem attacks do not elevate this discussion either. I understand this is an emotional issue, and it is especially the case in emotional issues that it is hardest to see clearly. I once held views similar to the ones Frank conveys so articulately in his piece, but once I started really looking at the big picture and studying the data, I changed them. Perhaps Frank would not have, but I believe I sourced every single assertion I made in my piece, to current information, and I believe an open mind can evaluate which view is better supported. Unfortunately, the above piece sources few, and references a supreme court decision from 1994, well before US WTE plants were retrofitted to meet the EPA’s new MACT standards that have so dramatically changed the emission picture, and is thus not relevant to the points I raise in my piece. This is an example of my point. Another example is that chapter six of the very same climate advisory group report that the above piece mentions recommends WTE as part of the solution: “This policy promotes activities that further reduce GHG production by encouraging the use of energy recovery technologies for materials not managed by AFW-7 (Front-End Waste Management Technologies). It also encourages the use of energy recovery technologies for waste materials for which more desirable front-end waste management alternatives are not available or feasible. These technologies will help reduce GHG emissions from waste management, while producing cleaner energy. They make a two-fold contribution to climate protection, by reducing the discharge of methane and other GHGs into the atmosphere, and replacing fossil fuel burning with recovered energy.” This is similar to the conclusion of my piece. The times are changing. All rhetoric aside, the fact remains that climate change is changing the game. I agree with Frank in that recycling and composting are highly preferable and I would indeed like to see us at 75% recycling and composting. We would then lead the world in this regard. But while we debate, we are choosing by default to landfill 69% of our waste, and that’s not a responsible or sustainable choice for our children. So my point remains: reduce, reuse, recycle, and then what? As a caring person who advocates for science to guide public policy, the evidence I have seen has convinced me that WTE is a more responsible choice than landfilling. Perhaps there is some other evidence I am not aware of that will one day convince me otherwise. Until then I look forward to continuing the discussion in hopes that we can get some sort of movement at last on solving a problem where we have become stuck fiddling for far too long while the climate burns.

    • Submitted by on 06/13/2013 - 02:16 pm.

      How about RETHINK, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle & ROT

      I would like to see absolute prioritization of the three “Rs” (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) before considering an increase in incineration. I would also recommend we add two more “Rs” to get us to zero waste:

      First and foremost, we need to RETHINK why we create and how we manage waste. We should rethink along the entire life cycle of goods, from preventing waste in the first place to how a material is disposed of.

      ROT refers to composting, or organics collection. This is the next big step to reducing the amount of material that is sent to the incinerator and the landfill. In addition, if the focus is on how to most effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), organics recycling is the most important action to focus on. Why? Because food waste and non-recyclable paper create methane gas once placed inside a landfill. According to the EPA, methane is a potent GHG with a Global Warming Potential of 21. This means it is 21 times more effective at trapping heat compared to carbon dioxide.

      I do acknowledge waste to energy is a better option than landfilling, but more resources need to be allocated to the five “Rs”.

      Also, we must not forget the environmental justice/environmental racism component in relation with burning our trash. The HERC (Hennepin County Energy Recovery Center) disproportionately pollutes toxic air upon low income people who live near the facility. While it is our responsibility to reduce landfill waste, it is also imperative that we do not place environmental discrimination upon people who live in that neighborhood and surrounding community.

      • Submitted by Shawn Otto on 06/18/2013 - 04:03 pm.

        Rethink = reduce; rot = recycle

        Thanks Brian. In normal waste management speak, what you refer to as “rethink” is contained in source reduction of waste and manufacturer stewardship, as well as the zero-waste movement in factories. “Rot” is composting, which is normally clumped in as part of recycling, since it is recycling of organics into soil.

  2. Submitted by Greg Laden on 06/13/2013 - 08:59 am.

    Actually, Shawn Otto was right.

    One of Shawn Otto’s main points in his article is that waste to energy technology has changed over time so that it is significantly better.

    This piece mentions the concentration of toxic elements and compounds. The process of natural winnowing, increase density, and chemical changes that make coal does that too. Then, when the coal is burned, it happens further. Unregulated waste to energy burning may be very bad, but controlling the outputs for this technology, compared to coal, are vastly different.

    Several times a year, I drive by the Elk River waste to energy plant. If there was not a sign on it I would not know it was a “garbage burning” facility. I also drive by the Monticello coal plant, but the highways are pretty far from the plant so one does not notice it. But I have had occasion to drive on the roads right near that plant, and it is very hard to miss that there is something going on there. One gets the feeling … induced by the smell … that one should not hang out there for very long! That is very unscientific, just a personal observation, but it meets expectations based on Shawn Otto’s characterization of the different, not Mr. Horstein’s.

    The most important thing to know is this: For the most part, Waste to Energy uses Carbon that was either extracted from the current ongoing carbon cycle (like material from plant matter including wood and paper) or that has already been extracted from the long-cycle (fossil fuels). Meanwhile coal and natural gas burning plants are using 100% ancient carbon. If waste to energy plants were about as clean as coal plants, they would be preferred for this reason alone. Also, for various reasons, the total energy output per unit of Carbon released into the atmosphere for Waste-to-energy is less than half of that for coal.

    And, they tend to be much cleaner than many coal plants, especially older less efficient coal plants without the cleaning technologies that are in waste to energy plants.

  3. Submitted by Oliver Sal on 06/13/2013 - 09:21 am.

    Graph is intentionally misleading

    And characteristic of the dubious (if ever) use of data by the anti-HERC crowd.

    You cannot compare the CO2 emissions of incineration to the CO2 emissions of other fuel sources–you have to compare the CO2 emissions of incineration to the greenhouse gas emissions from landfilling the garbage. Otherwise you’re comparing apple and oranges.

    If you incinerate garbage, that garbage does two things: it produces energy, and it produces CO2.
    If you landfill waste it does two things: Decomposes, producing methane, and leaches heavy metals into our groundwater.
    Methane is much much worse for our environment than CO2.

    Incinerating trash produces greenhouse gasses. Landfilling it is worse.

    The fact is that countries with much, much stricter air pollution laws than us now derive nearly half of their energy from waste incineration. That says something.

    The HERC is not perfect, but it’s actually a pretty reasonable solution to a problem with NO good solutions. That pragmatism seems to elude some. Waste reduction and waste incineration are not mutually exclusive–reduce, reuse, recycle. And then we need to deal with what they’ve got left over.

    Challenge to the anti-HERC folks–let’s get serious about reducing, reusing, and recycling. What do we do with the inevitable remaining trash? Pretend you’re Hennepin County Commissioner for a day. What do you do? Don’t criticize–make concrete policy suggestions.

    • Submitted by Monica Millsap on 06/13/2013 - 09:59 am.

      A great comment. Yes, let’s challenge our elected leaders to come up with real and viable alternatives.

      When I chose my garbage collection company, I chose one that says it burns trash for energy. This was in part a reaction from my adolescent years in Iowa spent watching Waste Management trucks from Minnesota cities make daily visits past my farmhouse to a landfill 5 miles from my family’s house. I didn’t want to be responsible for contributing more to that landfill.

      I decided WTE sounded like improved technology from coal burning. Coal mining itself is dangerous. I understand that burning also comes with pollutants, though I do believe science and technology are available to make it safer.

      I also understand that much of what we recycle is not valuable and eventually is dumped or burned even when it is collected by recyclers.

      Many companies are already reducing packaging. The best alternative to further reducing waste that I’ve ever read is to encourage manufacturers to reuse and recycle their own materials. But that even seems like it could fail. If we force manufacturers to take back items that they really can’t use or costs too much to reuse, will it result in more dumping (as we already do with some recycling)?

      I was happy to read Mr Otto’s essay a few days ago as I believe it could start a good discussion about real solutions. I, too, believe if we continue supporting science (as opposed to special interests on both sides of the issue) we can find a solution.

    • Submitted by Shawn Otto on 06/18/2013 - 04:16 pm.

      You are correct

      The graph is indeed misleading, because it neglects to illustrate the fact that over half of the waste WTE plants burn is part of the short carbon cycle anyway – ie organically derived, and so burning it does not increase climate change. The remainder is derived from long-cycle carbon, ie fossil fuels. While burning it does add to the atmosphere’s carbon load, it offsets the burning of virgin fossil fuels and instead burns something that has already served a purpose. This is part of why the EPA actually says WTE net reduces GHGs. To make a fair comparison, the graph should only compare the net addition of GHGs to the atmosphere, not the gross amount produced by burning.

  4. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 06/13/2013 - 09:53 am.

    I was also disappointed in that figure– so much so that I confess I skimmed the rest of the piece.

    It ignores the 2 fundamental points of the incinerator debate:

    -Is it better than landfilling (in terms of cost, CO2 emissions, traffic issues, etc)?
    -What it the source of CO2 (sequestered carbon locked in the earth, or surface carbon that will be decomposing and releasing carbon whatever happens)?

    Not having a column for the CO2 effects of landfills is just laughable, since that’s what we’re choosing between (after we increase rates of recycling, which pretty much everyone agrees we should). Comparing the effects of an incinerator to coal/oil/gas fired plants is silly, since an incinerator’s main function is to dispose of waste, while generating some power as a nice bonus, whereas the others are exclusively there to generate power.

    Finally, I think the biggest impediment to recycling in Minneapolis has not been the presence of the incinerator (I suspect most people have no idea where the trucks take their trash), but the absence of a convenient single-sort recycling program. Now that that has changed, I suspect the recycling rate will take a significant jump– but it certainly needs to go higher.

    I respect both Mr Otto and Rep Hornstein, but I do think it’s vital that we are honest in our debates– which means using the most current data available, making valid comparisons, and not framing things as either-or-choices. In this case, Mr Otto has the facts on his side, and he’s done a pretty admirable job of referencing them.

  5. Submitted by Alan Muller on 06/13/2013 - 11:38 am.

    Hornstein knows what he’s talking about, Otto doesn’t

    Several reasons this whole subject is toxic in Minnesota:

    The so-called “Minnesota Pollution Control Agency” is, sadly, part of the garbage incinerator industry. The agency promotes incineration relentlessly, manipulates permitting and environmental review in favor of incineration, give grants for incinerators… A very sad picture.

    At the same time, “environmental” interests in MN have been largely silent on this matter in recent years, and in many cases have been complicit in promoting incineration. This is shameful. See, for example, my piece: “Just how low can an ENGO go?” (

    A great deal of money has been spread around by Covanta and Hennepin County to induce people and orgs to shut up, or to actively promote incineration. In some ways this political toxicity may be as damaging as the environmental kind.

    Neither burning nor indiscriminate dumping makes any sense. Suggesting we are limited to some combination of two very bad choices is silly. At one time MN was a leader in recycling. But the world has moved on and Minnesota hasn’t.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/13/2013 - 12:15 pm.

      Biased sources

      Here’s the problem. You claim that the source of the data is biased. That may very well be true. But is the DATA wrong? I’m not seeing a credible piece of evidence that shows otherwise. And in any case, from a scientific standpoint and aside from the data that is produced from a biased source, it makes sense to burn rather than landfill. And since that’s what WTE does, it makes sense to take advantage of the WTE for energy.

    • Submitted by Oliver Sal on 06/13/2013 - 12:22 pm.

      Give us solutions or data

      All you gave us in your comment was aspersions.

      Let’s implement an aggressive single-sort recycling program. We all agree on that. Let’s implement municipal composting. We all agree on that.

      What do we do with the remaining garbage after recycling and composting? You have offered no solutions. Landfilling is the worse possible solution. Incineration is a better solution. What’s the third solution you’re offering that’s better than landfilling or incineration?

      • Submitted by Jeff Klein on 06/13/2013 - 02:16 pm.


        Totally agree. All too often these solutions to environmental and energy problems are seen as either perfect or non-starters. It’s the “let’s not use wind power because sometimes a bird hits it” mode of thinking. Instead, we need to see every possibility as a trade off. There’s a little bit of bad stuff that comes out of the incinerator. But you compare that to our complacency on climate change and the future world of a forever-warmed climate and then you make a decision based on all of the information.

  6. Submitted by Alan Muller on 06/13/2013 - 03:18 pm.

    Why argue with the burner people….

    Look, I know you burner people are always going to carry on saying the same thing, and arguing with you is useless. but possibly some more open-minded people might read the discussion….

    No, we don’t “all” agree that “single sort” is the way to go. It’s not.

    No, I don’t agree that dumping (“landfilling”) is the “worst possible” solution. Where’s your evidence for that?

    No, I don’t agree it’s acceptable to belch 1.4 million pounds per year of health-damaging air pollutants into Minneapolis. This is only acceptable if you give very low priority to public health and don’t care about “environmental justice.”

    As for solutions: At least 80% of the municipal waste stream is recyclable. This is demonstrated by San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and elsewhere. (These are not all at 80%, but they are demonstrably on-the-way.) The question about what-to-do-with-the-rest is reasonable. I suggest taking a look at some recent work on that here (

    The authors, known to me and credible, conclude:

    WTE facilities are not the best environmental option for managing leftover waste and they are not a bridge to a Zero Waste future, as claimed by the WTE industry. After maximizing their source-separated recycling and composting efforts, communities looking to minimize the environmental impacts of their remaining waste should pursue an MRBT-to-landfill system because it recovers the greatest amount of additional recyclables, stabilizes the organic fraction of the residuals, reduces the amount of material to be disposed of in a landfill, and minimizes the negative environmental and public health impacts of landfilling leftovers compared to the available alternative technologies. This study shows that it is reasonable to conclude that the MRBT option is not only the best environmental practice for disposing of residuals, but it is also the best community strategic option as well. MRBT is not a replacement or substitution for source-separated recycling and composting, but it is a valuable tool for helping communities reduce the environmental impacts from the disposal of their leftovers on the way to Zero Waste.

    • Submitted by Lance Groth on 06/13/2013 - 06:29 pm.

      Facts, not emotion

      Tactical note: It’s never a good idea to start out with “I know you people can’t be reasoned with”. It turns off not just the people you’re angry with, but neutral observers too.

      As someone who is very interested in issues related to climate change, but neutral on this issue mainly out of ignorance of the technologies and complexities involved (and therefore presumably one of the open-minded people you hope to persuade), I’ve read this article and Mr. Otto’s, and all the comments, with the hope of being educated on the topic. I have to say, thus far, I find Mr. Otto’s arguments to be the more persuasive, as they appear to be well researched, well grounded in current technologies and research, his statements of fact to be well attributed (and thus easily independently verified), and above all, clearly and fairly contrasted with the available alternatives, i.e., placed clearly and understandably in context.

      From the other side, I’m hearing mostly a lot of emotional heat. I can relate, as I’ve been known to become similarly exercised about other issues, but it gets in the way of reasoned persuasion (as I have also experienced).

      I would also note that both sides appear to agree on much – the nature of the problem, and much of the solution (the “R’s”, 3 or 5). For the rest, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  7. Submitted by Monica Millsap on 06/13/2013 - 04:02 pm.

    Thank you for the information on MRBT. It was something I hadn’t heard about before and something I’d appreciate reading more about.

    From what I read briefly of MRBT, the process does an above average job of landfill trash reduction and it does include some amount of waste to energy as well as recycling what is valuable.

    The one impact that I didn’t read about was economic impact, which is vital to global justice. Obviously, if we are effectively and efficiently disposing of trash and recycling, the economic value is great. But if the process is not cost effective, it is inefficient and makes us poorer.

    I did see that the MRBT plants are built more quickly than WTE incinerators. Just missed the data on cost to run.

  8. Submitted by Nikki Carlson on 06/13/2013 - 04:33 pm.

    False choice

    Maximizing recycling and composting does not negate the need for WTE. We can do both. Also, all cities should be providing curbside pick up of: 1) compost, 2) recycling, 3) landfill, and 4) hazardous waste. This will help clean the waste stream to be incinerated.

  9. Submitted by David Rasmussen on 06/13/2013 - 05:23 pm.

    Engineering is Rocket Science!

    It is scary for most people to hear and read about toxic chemicals and climate apocalypse. It is especially scary when political types– Limbaugh, Gore, etc.– add layers of spin on top of the science that already scares us. Political types tell us that we need to take action… that they know best… just amplify my message… you need no real understanding… here are some slogans. Go forth, angry mob.

    The way out of this morass is to establish goals, then hire competent technical people to solve them. National leaders need to set national goals such as to reduce carbon emissions. Secretary Chu suggested this via a tax on carbon extraction. Local leaders need to set local policies that make sense. Don’t recycle glass if it is going to the landfill anyway, for example. Burn garbage if it is more cost effective and uses less carbon than the alternative of burning coal.

    If the scientists, doctors and engineers are allowed to solve real issues, then real problems will be solved. Secretary Chu, for example, had scientific credibility, did some excellent work and members of both parties misquoted him regularly for their purposes. Beware of political parties quoting “science”. I suggest this article is an example of the type of political spin that vexed Secretary Chu.

Leave a Reply