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Why get trashed when you can recycle?

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Burning trash is bad for our health.

A recent Politico article, “Minneapolis Gets Trashed,” lauded the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) – a garbage incinerator that burns 1,000 tons of trash per day just north of downtown Minneapolis – as a symbol of the city’s bright green future. The article was right that Minneapolis’s trash policy future is bright, but it was wrong about why.

While the Aug. 20 article detailed some of the benefits of the HERC, it ignored the high costs of burning reusable materials for our health and economy. It also overlooked the far more impressive story of Minneapolis moving to zero waste policies, including composting, recycling, and reusing.

Burning trash is bad for our health. According to the Envitonmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average municipal solid waste incinerator actually emits more greenhouse gases per megawatt hour of energy than the average coal-fired power plant. The HERC, just like other trash burners, also emits heavy metals and toxic compounds. These toxic materials primarily affect low-income communities and communities of color. The HERC’s emissions are most heavily experienced by nearby north Minneapolis – an area with high poverty, high unemployment, and significant health issues.

Most is recyclable or compostable

Burning trash is wasteful. Almost three-quarters of the waste burned in the HERC is recyclable or compostable. In Minnesota, we burn or bury nearly $200 million of usable materials every year.

Trash burning is no job driver, especially compared to recycling. It’s estimated that recycling creates ten times more jobs than sending waste to landfills or incinerators. Burning trash is not the best way to go for our health, environment, or economy.

So what are the good news stories happening in Minneapolis? Let me give you four.

  • First, this year Minneapolis is taking huge strides in waste reduction by rolling out door-to-door compost collection under the leadership of Mayor Betsy Hodges. About a third of the Minneapolis waste stream is organics, which can be turned back into usable soil through composting. Mayor Hodges is also leading an effort called Zero Waste Minneapolis to help those who live in Minneapolis reduce, reuse, and recycle more.
  • Second, local businesses are partnering with government in innovative ways to reduce their waste. Several restaurants and a movie theater – using grants from Hennepin County – teamed up to reduce their waste by adopting business-wide composting. In their first year, the businesses cut their trash by 150 tons and saved over $6,500 in disposal fees
  • Third, many businesses are showing vision and leadership by reducing waste on their own. In fact, the Minnesota Twins, whose home at Target Field is right next door to the HERC, rolled out composting across the stadium, moving to corn based beer cups and utensils. They have saved over 5,400 tons of trash from going to a landfill or incinerator.
  • And fourth, the Twin Cities have shining examples of the economic benefits of recycling. Nonprofit Eureka Recycling, which handles all of the recycling for St. Paul, has created 30 full-time, living wage jobs. Turnover is low because employees are committed to the work – they know they are making a difference for their kids’ futures. Jose Hernandez, a 26-year-old father and supervisor at Eureka, agrees: “It’s a place I wouldn’t leave, because what we do impacts the world. … I want my son to have a future where he can breathe fresh air.” 

A bill focused on sustainability

All this energy around good waste practices in the Twin Cities has inspired me to take action at the federal level. A few weeks ago I introduced a bill that is truly focused on sustainability — the Zero Waste Development and Expansion Act — which would support communities striving toward zero waste by establishing a grant program that funds local recycling, composting, and waste prevention programs.

Rep. Keith Ellison
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Rep. Keith Ellison

The federal government has an important role to play in helping states and localities finance the development of zero waste programs. The Closed Loop Fund – a group of consumer goods companies like Johnson and Johnson, Coca-Cola, and Unilever – has analyzed the significant need for investment in recycling infrastructure. They have estimated that an investment of $100 million over five years in recycling infrastructure could lead to the creation of 27,000 new jobs, help save municipalities more than $1.9 billion in waste disposal costs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 million tons. My bill takes up this challenge with grants to local governments and public-private partnerships to improve waste reuse and reduction.

It’s time we stop wasting “waste,” as the HERC does. It’s time we start thinking about waste as a resource to be reused, rather than something to be burned or buried. There are real good news stories on waste in Minneapolis that will create jobs, improve health, and be better for the environment.

Rep. Keith Ellison represents Minnesota’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by David Rasmussen on 09/05/2015 - 12:44 pm.

    zero waste is a myth

    I have helped to sponsor a zero waste event in a public park. Guess what? It wasn’t. Though our forks and plates were compostable, and cost double, nothing was actually composted. Having a compost container in addition to cans/bottles confused people, so the compostable trash was unusable. And, people bring in items that can only be considered trash. In the end, our organizer, who very much wanted a zero waste event, gave up and threw everything away.

    Likewise, zero waste at Target Field is a wish, not a reality, for the same reasons as above. Let’s spend money to make people feel good. No one will actually audit the results.

    Recycling happens when it is cost effective and businesses can profit. It even happens when it is not cost effective and businesses can claim alignment with the green community. Further government involvement assures green policies which are not auditably green.
    Economic analysis would show that those 30 St Paul jobs that Ellison is proud of don’t contribute half as much as 30 minimum wage McDonald’s jobs. I have seen the St. Paul results presented to my District Council; those jobs are not justified by the numbers. We might as well pay people to stay home.

    It would be refreshing to see economic arguments for recycling that are made realistically.

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