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Two Minn. counties to burn all trash in incinerators for electricity

Garbage truck driver Mike Casson with Tennis Sanitation gets directions on where to dump his load of garbage at the Energy and Recycling Center in Newport on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. (Pioneer Press / John Autey)1 / 2
Garbage truck driver Mike Casson with Tennis Sanitation dumps his load of garbage at the Energy and Recycling Center in Newport on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. (Pioneer Press / John Autey)2 / 2

ST. PAUL—If you live in Washington or Ramsey counties in the Twin Cities, all your garbage will be burned, starting Jan. 1.

The counties are the first in the state to require that all garbage be sent to incinerators to generate electricity. The most immediate effect is on trash haulers, who must explain to customers why their rates are going up.

"I don't think anyone thinks about where their garbage goes," shouted Mike Casson, over the clatter of the steel claw tossing trash into his Tennis Sanitation truck in Oakdale recently.

But they will notice, he said, when their bills increase.

Trash companies will pass along the 10 percent increase caused by the garbage-burning mandate, and they question the environmental benefits.

"We never had a raise like that before," said Greg Tennis, co-owner of Tennis Sanitation in St. Paul Park.

WHY THE CHANGE

Incinerating garbage keeps it out of landfills and generates power for 20,000 homes, according to Zack Hansen, Ramsey County environmental health director.

The increased rates are the price of progress, he said. "Managing waste is a necessary public service — it's like paying for sewers or streets."

Officials say they are required by law to find alternatives to landfills.

A 1989 law set up a hierarchy for waste management — with landfills being the worst way to treat garbage and reducing and recycling the best. Other options include composting or burning garbage.

To reduce landfill use, the counties bought a processing plant in Newport in 2015. The site had been a privately owned facility shredding garbage to be burned in electricity-producing incinerators. Haulers were free to haul garbage to the plant or take it anywhere else, including low-cost landfills.

Now all garbage from the two counties must be taken to the plant to have the recyclable materials removed and the garbage shredded and burned.

NET GAIN FOR ENVIRONMENT?

The mandate won't change the budget for the plant — which is roughly $37 million annually.

It won't change the amount of garbage burned, which remains at 460,000 tons annually.

Is it changing the amount of material going to landfills? Next year, 70,000 tons that now go to landfills annually will instead by processed by the plant. To compensate, the plant won't be accepting 70,000 tons that come from other counties.

Ramsey County's Hansen said the incineration mandate is a step toward setting up a start-to-finish waste system, in which less garbage would be generated, more would be recycled, and food waste and yard waste would be removed.

"Environmentally, that would be a very sound system," he said.

GARBAGE FLOW

By centralizing control of the garbage flow, officials will be better able to adapt to new technologies. Hansen mentioned other advances that might be ahead — processing garbage into bio-fuels like ethanol and recycling organic waste into compost material.

That sounds good to Paul Austin, director of Conservation Minnesota. He said it's most important to cut off garbage at the source, by reducing what is consumed. But for whatever garbage remains, he discourages landfill use.

"You put something in a landfill, and it stays there forever," said Austin. "You fill one landfill, then you have to make another. The footprint of garbage grows."

COST VS. BENEFIT

Critics say that consumers in Ramsey and Washington counties will pay more for a questionable environmental benefit, and that incineration is not required by law.

Dakota County, for example, does not burn any garbage.

Georg Fischer, the county's director of environmental resources, interprets the law differently — that counties should avoid landfills if alternatives are available. They are mostly unavailable in Dakota County, he said.

Fischer said that a county study concluded that greenhouse gases released from incineration were comparable to those from landfills.

Dakota County's wastes go to modern landfills that are sealed to capture greenhouse gases. Some landfills — such as the Republic Services landfill in Inver Grove Heights — use that gas to generate electricity.

How, ask haulers, is that any worse than burning garbage for electricity?

"The jury is still out on that," responds Julie Ketchum, director of public affairs for Waste Management, on whether burning garbage is better than putting it in landfills.

PRICE INCREASE EXPLAINED

Burning garbage is more costly than putting it in landfills, said Hansen, and a price increase is needed to pay for it.

As of Jan. 1, garbage companies will pay $77 per ton to dump refuse at the Newport plant, an increase of 10 percent.

That will mean higher bills, say trash haulers. That's in addition to taxes and fees as high as 63 percent that customers already pay — 10 percent charged by the state, 35 percent by Washington County, 28 percent for residential services in Ramsey County, 53 percent for nonresidential.

HAULERS TO ADJUST

The changeover will mean more landfill use for some customers.

Tennis Sanitation co-owner Tennis now takes waste from Dakota County to Newport, when it's from nearby cities like Hastings, Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul. But after Jan. 1, the facility will only accept waste from Ramsey and Washington counties — not Dakota County.

So Tennis will be taking their waste to landfills. Particularly tempting, he said, is the option of hauling it 80 miles to Eau Claire, Wis.

Why? Because that landfill charges $67 a ton to dump garbage — 13 percent less than at the Newport plant.

In his garbage truck in Oakdale, Casson groaned at the prospect of making more drives to distant landfills.

The truck shook as the claw snatched another bin full of incinerator-bound trash.

"What are we supposed to do?" he said.

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