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HERC’s emissions and toxic ash make it a far cry from best practices in dealing with trash

Re: “We have a trash problem, and HERC is part of the solution,” by Linda Higgins, July 6:

Neil Seldman

The HERC garbage incinerator is not the best solution to Hennepin County’s trash problem — far from it. While the county is doing well at 46 percent recycling, composting and reuse, it is far from the best practices in cities and counties across the country that have moved to 70 percent plus diversion through recycling, composting and reuse.

For the remaining waste, Commissioner Higgins suggests that the county burn the residue as an alternative to landfilling. Yet every incinerator needs landfills for toxic ash and bypass waste. Approximately 20­-30 percent of garbage going into an incinerator must be landfilled.

Landfills are forever. But a comprehensive recycling system, without burning, can reduce waste flowing to landfill to 10­-15 percent of inert materials (removing plastic, metal, organics, paper, and reparable items). Without burning, toxic ash is eliminated from the equation.

Diverting organics lowers landfill pollution

John Farrell

Landfill pollution can also be significantly reduced. As already started with the citywide organics collection in Minneapolis, diverting organics can eliminate escaping methane and sharply reduce toxic leachate, lowering landfill management and post­closing costs.

More jobs will be created through increased organics recovery. For every 10,000 tons of waste burned ,one job is created. For 10,000 of materials composted, 5­6 jobs are created in processing and many more jobs are created in the nursery, grounds management and landscaping sectors. C​omprehensive recycling, composting and reuse is also less expensive than garbage incineration (the cost per ton for collection of recyclables and garbage are comparable, but it costs more to tip garbage at incinerators than tip recyclables at processing centers; and, the recycling process has far fewer health and pollution costs).

Finally, the Higgins commentary hardly gives an accurate assessment of pollution emanating from HERC. According to the EPA’s National Emissions Inventory for 2011 (latest data available) HERC is a large air polluter in the industry and region.

HERC’s air pollution stats

In the entire incinerator industry in the 2011 data, and despite being only the 38th largest incinerator, HERC is:

  • No. 1 in arsenic emissions (31 percent of the emissions from 65 plants reporting)
  • No. 2 in chromium VI emissions (19 percent of the emissions from 62 plants reporting)
  • No. 2 in chromium III emissions (23 percent of the emissions from 56 plants reporting)
  • No. 3 in nickel emissions (11 percent of the emissions from 64 plants reporting)
  • No. 5 in condensable particulate matter

In general, burning garbage emits more pollution than burning coal.

For more complete information on HERC’s emissions, see Energy Justice Network

It may be true that Hennepin County hasn’t reached its waste reduction potential, but that’s no reason to keep burning up the county’s resources, and dollars, on the way. 

Neil Seldman is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. John Farrell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Energy Democracy initiative.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Steve Carlson on 08/01/2016 - 10:55 am.

    Apples and oranges

    The author’s haven’t shown Hennepin County’s relatively low recycling and composting rate is caused by the HERC, they’ve merely attempted to make us assume there’s a connection. Trash incineration and composting/recycling are complimentary, not opposed strategies.

    Further, citing air pollution statistics is misleading: if all of that trash wasn’t incinerated and was instead diverted to a landfill, it would break down into methane (really bad for the atmosphere) and present a huge groundwater contamination risk. And we wouldn’t gain any benefit from it in the form of energy.

  2. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 08/01/2016 - 10:26 pm.

    Exactly. I can’t say whether the HERC’s emissions are a problem, but this list of statistics is meaningless. What matters is if particular emissions are linked to health outcomes.

    Also can’t help but notice that there’s nothing more locally self-reliant than burning your trash to make energy that’s already accounted for in terms of carbon.

    And of course we should do better at recycling. But so long as there’s trash, if you can turn it into energy without harming people, do it. The latter part is the question but this piece doesn’t address it.

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