One person’s trash is another’s ether


Burning trash is the burning question in St. Paul.

Before all the boxes are unpacked and the curtains hung, a homeowner moving in at a St. Paul address has a baffling question to resolve quickly: which trash hauler to hire.

Considerations include price, schedule, reliability and services. Some folks also want to know where their trash is going and what the relative environmental impact might be once it hits the landfill or the furnace.

Ramsey County Environmental Health Manager Zack Hansen said customers can and should ask where their trash is going. “As a good consumer, you should ask that question and insist on a clear answer.”

State law will back you up, he said. The hauler has to divulge where the trash is going, and Hansen said most haulers licensed in Ramsey County take at least some of their trash to a plant in Newport, Minn., which processes it into fuel that in turn is sent to Xcel Energy and burned to generate electricity.

How that compares to other ways of disposing of waste, in terms of environmental impact, is a difficult question, Hansen said. He noted that the county’s priority is “to see waste get processed into energy” but added that not enough is known about what comes out of the smokestacks of a plant burning refuse-derived fuel (RDF).

The answer may get clearer, though, in the course of the Rock-Tenn recycling company’s quest for a new source of power. Rock-Tenn, on Vandalia near I-94 in St. Paul, will lose its main power source on August 15, when Xcel’s High Bridge plant began its conversion from coal to natural gas.

While it runs temporarily on its own oil and gas burners, the company has both money and mandates from the Legislature to find a long-term fuel source that is environmentally acceptable as well as economically feasible.

St. Paul officials are anxious to retain Rock-Tenn’s 500 or so jobs while they try to keep the air clean — priorities that can come into conflict.

Hansen said it’s not as if everything we throw in our trash cans winds up as RDF. The waste is spread out on a floor at the Newport plant, where anything obviously inappropriate (an air conditioner, perhaps) gets yanked from the pile. The remainder goes through a series of shredders and sorters that draw out the wetter, heavier material, which is sent to a landfill. Magnets suck out the iron, and another process removes aluminum.

Hansen said that of the original material hauled into Newport, about 85 percent winds up at Xcel burners, which used to burn coal and were retrofitted to burn RDF as an environmentally sound improvement.

Burning RDF may be better than burning coal, but is it better than burying our trash? State Sen. Ellen Anderson’s staff has come across this question while researching Rock-Tenn and other environmental issues.

“The jury really seems to be still out,” according to Anderson’s staffer Don Jorovsky. “There seems to be a genuine dispute among serious people about the environmental consequences” of burning RDF.

Jorovsky said he hopes the Rock-Tenn debate will yield some data about what’s coming out of the smokestacks.

And it might, said Nina Axelson, former community organizer at the St. Anthony Park Community Council and currently the community outreach coordinator for the recently formed Rock-Tenn Community Advisory Panel. Axelson said she expects the RDF issue to come up for discussion by the panel.

If the advisory panel recommends that the city and the state pursue RDF as an option for Rock-Tenn, Axelson said, we can indeed hope for a better understanding of how the fuel affects air quality as more detailed environmental studies are undertaken.

Axelson (649-5992, can help neighbors track down the latest information on Rock-Tenn, although she said she is not an expert on RDF. The advisory panel has a Web site ( Its meetings are open to the public.