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Garbage burning emits significant amounts of toxic pollutants, particulates

Incineration, with myriad toxic effects, is a 1980s solution to a 21st-century problem. Officials should embrace a zero-waste solution through recycling and composting.

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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.

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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.

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