Why MCEA Supports A Closure Plan for the HERC
After listening to our partners and exploring the data, MCEA supports efforts to close the HERC: The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (“HERC”) is a major source of pollution that contributes to health and racial inequities in Minnesota, is incompatible with a carbon-free future, and doesn’t actually keep our trash out of landfills.
Read below to learn more about MCEA's position on HERC.
Ready to take action? Here's how you can help:
1) Email the Hennepin County Commissioners asking them to include a closure date for the HERC in their Zero Waste Plan. The vote is on April 24th.
2) Sign the Minnesota EJ Table's petition calling for the permanent closure of the HERC.
The HERC is a garbage incinerator located in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis. It burns trash and recovers some heat to produce steam and generate electricity. Between 2000 and 2022, 48 incinerators in the U.S. closed for good. The commonly cited reasons for closure are inefficiency, high maintenance costs, and better energy sources than incineration.1 Communities across the country are also fighting against incineration as a method of waste disposal because of the pollution and health impacts they create. In 2019, a community-led campaign succeeded in getting the Detroit incinerator shutdown after the facility was faced with serious fines for Clean Air Act permit violations.
Minnesota is home to seven incinerators; the largest of which is the HERC.2 Due to the serious health impacts caused by its operation and other concerns, community members have opposed the HERC since its inception. When it was originally built, it was slated to close by 2009. Nearly 15 years later, the fight continues. Recently renewed efforts to shut down the HERC are being led by community members that are most impacted by the pollution and the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table. After careful consideration, we’ve decided to support the ongoing calls to close the HERC by 2025 because the HERC is not an equitable, sustainable, or safe way to manage our waste.
There are a lot of misconceptions and inaccuracies surrounding garbage incineration, and the HERC in particular, that have fed support for incineration over the decades. As an organization that deals with the law and science we knew we had to have the facts before making a decision about whether to support the HERC’s closure. Here’s what we found out:
Misconception: Incineration is a cleaner way to deal with our trash.
Reality: The HERC is one of the top three air polluters in Hennepin County3
When incinerators were first introduced as an alternative to landfilling, they were presented as a great solution to the waste problem – it turns your trash into energy! But, as it turns out, that energy comes at a great cost. The HERC releases carbon monoxide, hydrochloric acid, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter in much higher concentrations than landfills.4 These emissions contribute to health problems such as asthma, heart conditions, and cancer. The facility also emits lead pollution, which can cause organ and brain damage, particularly in children.
Incineration has also become increasingly harmful as more plastic is used, discarded, and incinerated. Incineration of plastic creates dioxins, a major carcinogen that is toxic as well as the active ingredient in Agent Orange.5
The EPA estimates the HERC released 173,254 tons of carbon dioxide, 404 tons of nitrous oxide, and 44 tons of particulate matter (soot) in 2019 alone.6 An independent study by Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy estimated that health impacts from the HERC’s particulate matter emissions from 2019 alone resulted in $11 - 24 million per year in health costs.7 And, these impacts aren’t being shared equally. The area directly surrounding the HERC has a higher concentration of low-income households than 89 percent of the state, as well as a higher percentage of people of color than 90 percent of the state.
Misconception: The HERC keeps trash out of the landfill
Reality: Burning trash at the HERC creates ash that is sent to the landfill. Further, approximately 70% of what is burned at the HERC could instead be recycled or composted.8
The HERC is just a pit stop for our garbage. After being burned down at the HERC, the ash produced by burning the waste then gets sent to a landfill. The HERC delivers approximately 23% of the tonnage it receives to landfills in the form of ash. So, while the incinerator is reducing the volume of our waste, the trash still gets sent to the landfill in the form of ash.9 Moreover, that ash creates a higher risk of groundwater pollution.10
Notably, we could keep most of this waste - 70 percent - out of landfills entirely with more recycling and composting. According to Hennepin County, the waste it receives, by weight, is 16 percent paper, 2 percent glass, 5 percent metals, 15 percent plastic, 32 percent organics, and 30 percent “other.” With better systems in place, the paper, glass, metals, and some of the plastic could all be recycled if diverted (up to 38 percent); the organics could be composted. This includes metals we could be recycling to support new electric based infrastructure and lessen the need for mining. A much better alternative to burning trash is creating waste streams that divert it from the landfill and the incinerator. The remaining 30% of trash, classified as “other,” is not recyclable or compostable. The volume is comparable to the 23% of waste the HERC already sends to the landfill in the form of ash, but without the air pollution or concentration of toxic chemicals the HERC creates.
Misconception: The HERC offers a good long-term solution for waste.
Reality: HERC is a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions, and we have much better options for waste management than we did when the HERC incinerator was built more than 35 years ago.
Minnesota is rapidly moving towards a carbon-free future. In fact, the new 100% Clean Energy Law requires rapid transformation of our energy sector to remove all carbon-generating resources. HERC is the third largest carbon emitter in Hennepin County. It emits 173,254 tons of carbon dioxide each year. The HERC is incompatible with our State’s clean energy future. As such, it was recently removed from the State’s renewable energy definition.
Landfills emit methane, another potent greenhouse gas, and incineration is held up as a solution to that problem. While methane emissions from landfilling do pose a major problem, it’s not responsible or effective to substitute one greenhouse gas emitter for another. Further, the same strategies that would divert waste from the HERC would address the methane problem from landfills. Most of the methane produced by landfills comes from compostable organics that haven’t been diverted away from the waste stream. Separating and composting organic waste can reduce methane emissions from landfills by 62%. When coupled with other initiatives like biologically active landfill covers, methane emissions are lowered to 95%.11 Globally, better waste management policies such as waste separation, recycling, and composting could cut total greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector by 84%. That’s equivalent to the annual emissions of 300 million cars - or taking all motor vehicles in the U.S. off the road for an entire year.12
Ultimately, we can’t rely on garbage incinerators like the HERC to reduce the climate impacts of our waste. Instead, we should focus on diverting as much waste as possible away from incineration and landfilling via expanded recycling and composting services, which is a more effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Misconception: The HERC incinerator offers a good “bridge” solution until we get to zero waste
Reality: The HERC is far past its planned shutdown date and poses a continual threat to public health
The HERC has a human health cost. The HERC is contributing pollution to an already overburdened community. The zip codes just north and east of the HERC have the second and third highest rates of asthma in the Minneapolis metro area. The directly surrounding community has a higher concentration of particulate matter, a harmful type of air pollutant, than 95% of the rest of the State, and more nearby traffic than 96% of the state. These impacts add up, and people already exposed to high levels of pollution are more vulnerable to the added toxic pollution of the HERC. Continuing to saddle already over-polluted communities with additional health burdens is an inequitable way to manage our waste.
The HERC is also an aging facility and will not last forever. In addition to public health costs, the HERC is a costly resource for Hennepin County to keep up. When the HERC incinerator was built in 1989, it was designed to operate for 20 years and shut down in 2009. The average age of closed incinerators in the U.S. is 24 years; the HERC is still operating a decade past this average.13 Maintaining this out of date facility costs the County tens of millions of dollars14 in capital expenditures that could be used to create more sustainable waste disposal.15 Instead of investing any more money into this outdated facility, the County can invest in real zero-waste strategies that prioritize recycling, composting, and reducing harm to overburdened communities.
The bottom line:
Strengthened recycling and composting systems are a far better, fairer, and safer long-term strategy than continuing to run the HERC. The HERC is a huge source of both air and climate pollution, it produces toxic ash that still gets sent to landfills, and it’s a public health threat for an already-overburdened area of Minneapolis. And, incineration contributes to injustice in our state. Six out of our seven incinerators in Minnesota are located in environmental justice communities. Instead of continuing to invest in this outdated polluting facility, Hennepin County should plan a shutdown date for the HERC and focus on expanding recycling and composting services.
3 PSE factsheet
6 PSE factsheet
7 PSE factsheet
8 PSE factsheet
9 PSE factsheet
14 Environment and Energy, Operations and Maintenance Cost, GRE HERC Services, LLC, 4/2020