HERC incinerator and the Minneapolis environment: What can one person do?

I now have a little paper bag in my kitchen, filled with banana peels and coffee grounds, with a few apple cores thrown in. There are also some chicken bones and egg shells, but as I write this, I look up “should you put meat in your compost?” on Google and I realize that you’re not supposed to compost meat, so I guess I’m going to have to start over.

This is actually my second bag. The first one was first thrown away by my boyfriend, who didn’t realize I was saving it. He’s not happy about the whole project, as it stinks up the kitchen. But I’m intent on soldiering on until I figure out how to do it right. Of course, I’m not really sure what to do with the scraps. The first bag, which I rescued from the garbage, I buried in the back yard, behind the house. This doesn’t seem an ideal solution, as I’m going to run out of hiding places quickly before my landlord finds out. I guess I’m going to have to find a nearby community garden that will take them.

This is all inspired by the second mayoral debate that I went to, in which the first question dealt with the HERC incinerator. Hennepin County wants to increase the amount of garbage that gets burned, and the candidates all weighed in on where they stand on the issue. They were divided on it, with half of them singing its praises and the other half speaking against the expansion. Don Samuels declared that studies have shown it to be safe; Mark Andrew said it was actually a green initiative as it produces energy; and Gary Schiff said we've been given a false choice between landfills and the incinerator, saying instead that our city needs to become zero waste (with Betsy Hodges on that same team).

It’s a beautiful idea. Just imagine: what if we really could become a zero waste city? San Francisco is leading the charge on this, with an aim to become zero waste by 2020, with a number of other cities, especially out west, not far behind.

But Jackie Cherryhomes (who later got flack for not revealing at that moment that she had been a lobbyist for Covanta, the corporation that operates the HERC), made the obvious point that even if we aim to become zero waste in the future, we’ve got a long way to go before we’re there.

Later that night I went home and looked in my garbage can. So much stuff! I realized there were a few things in there that could be recycled, so I took them out, washed them, and put them in the recycling bag that we keep next to the garbage. But for the other stuff—the food scraps—I knew that I had to do something.

I’m not at all convinced that that incinerator is safe, but I’ll admit that it’s a confusing and complex issue. How much mercury, dioxins and heavy metal being released into the air is “too much”? (Not to mention the toxic ash that gets put in landfills anyway?) And how does this compare to the impact of increasing landfills? I also have questions about equity: how much is North Minneapolis being negatively impacted by the incinerator as opposed to other parts of the city? It also doesn’t seem quite fair that as Minneapolis decreases the amount of waste we produce (by recycling more), we would just get more garbage coming in from the suburbs to burn here.

Last month, the Strib reported that preliminary results from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency "show no ill effects" of the incinerator, but I'd just as soon wait for a full Environmental Impact Study (EIS). It's very confusing trying to get information about whether the incinerator is safe, as one side says one thing and the other says another.

In any case, I’m continuing my quest to reduce my own waste, but I recognize it takes baby steps. It’s kind of like how I bike, but I also have a car, for when it’s too icy or too far to drive, or I’m late. I’m not perfect, and also no one person can do it by herself. It’s going to take a great effort by the whole city—and policy that supports green behavior (as well as education)—to start making a dent.

Oh, and by the way: don’t forget to caucus on Tuesday! If you have views on this, make sure they’re heard!


Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

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  • The conflicting sets of "facts" aren't going to change, because they are based on different assumptions about what matters. But it should be clear that if human health is a priority, the HERC garbage burner should be shut down. - by Alan Muller on Mon, 04/15/2013 - 10:04am
  • Actually, if you do a little looking into it, just as you have done a little experimenting with your own waste stream, the choices become more clear. You have one "side" consisting of citizens who are advocating for their health and the health of others on the one hand, and on the other hand you have those who are opposed to that or any discussion of that. So much so that we have waited nearly 4 years now in delay of a public hearing. The citizens want to be informed of the health/financial costs as well as options and have this discussed in a participatory manner, where the other "side" wants to power broker a deal that will make them money or garner political favor, despite ill health or financial effects to the City of Minneapolis. So who should you choose to listen to? That is up to you and your values. Landfills do produce carbon dioxide and methane as "air pollutants" but so does your buried bag of garbage in your back yard, or a pile of sticks breaking down. Natural products of decomposition. Once you burn things, you produce combustion products. You burn 5,000 different pieces of garbage (including the 10 tons of household hazardous waste burned each day) you get 5,000 different combustion products. Many of which cause ill health effects and cancer. You seal them away in an engineered landfill they are contained for good, which means you could come back and recycle them in the future. Best solution is to recycle what can be recycled, compost what can be composted, and before you know it you not only have no need for the increase in the incinerator, you no longer need it to operate at all. - by Justin Eibenholzl on Mon, 04/15/2013 - 5:17pm

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Sheila Regan's picture
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.

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Bokashi.  Then go plant a pot

Bokashi.  Then go plant a pot of flowers.

There are solutions. Bokashi will take meat, cheese, etc.

What one person can do at their Caucus!

RESOLUTION AGAINST ANY INCREASE IN REFUSE TO BE INCINERATED AT THE DOWNTOWN HERC GARBAGE BURNER.
 
WHERAS: Approximately 2/3 of the garbage incinerated at HERC is from outside the city: St Louis Park and Minnetonka (per Hennepin County in 2010). The more Mpls recycles, the more can be trucked in from outside the city. Any allowable increase in burning capacity for HERC would only make the situation worse.
 
WHEREAS: Garbage Incineration produces health-damaging air emissions, toxic ash having to be dumped into toxic landfills and more greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal for the same amount of energy generated.
 
WHEREAS: The Minneapolis Recycling Rate is only about 17 percent, far below many "progressive" American cities. As of 2012, well over half of the current refuse incinerated at HERC is recyclable/compostable.
 
WHEREAS: Cities like San Francisco report an 80% recycling/composting/waste diversion rate and have NO garbage incinerators.
 
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED:
THAT THE MINNEAPOLIS CITY COUNCIL say NO to any proposed increases in Refuse incinerated at HERC.
 
THAT THE MINNEAPOLIS CITY COUNCIL Support the July, 2009 Planning Commission's decision to DENY the HERC application to increase it's garbage burning capacity by up to 212 tons (over 400,000 pounds) per day due to health and safety concerns.
 
THAT THE MINNEAPOLIS CITY COUNCIL Demand an Independent Third Party Environmental Impact Study (EIS) to measure the Public Health impacts of the HERC on the citizens of Minneapolis, the Alternatives to Incinerating Recyclables and Compostables, and to determine where the Emissions have been landing for the past 25+ years.
 
THAT THE MAYOR, THE MINNEAPOLIS CITY COUNCIL AND THE HENNEPIN COUNTY BOARD Support proven Zero Waste strategies used in other cities like San Francisco, emphasizing aggressive Recycling and Composting over Incineration and Landfills.

Tragedy of the Commons

HERC represents an application of biologist Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons, the classic example of which is the grazing of livestock on the town commons by nearly everyone; everything's fine until you pass the point where things can recover and resources become degraded.

The practical applications of the phenomenon is primarily in fisheries, but you can think of air pollution in the same framework, i.e., at some point the cummulative air pollution goes beyond any acceptable health risks to populations of all kinds, not just us humans. 

There is a great deal of burning going on around the world and Minneapolis has control over whether Hennepin County gets to burn a few hundred more tons per day at HERC. It the City holds the line and other do the same, perhaps we can avert our coming 'tragedy'.