Hennepin Energy Recovery Center

I participate in a Waste Collaborative group through Environmental Initiative - a Minneapolis-based non-profit that builds partnerships to find solutions to environmental problems. This group consists of a variety of businesses (health care, recyclers, grocery stores, food producers, manufacturers), non-profits and public organizations. It provides a space to share best practices, challenges, innovative solutions, and business connections. 

The last meeting was about zero-waste initiatives and included a tour of the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center - or HERC - which is right smack in the middle of one of the most vibrant areas of downtown Minneapolis - the North Loop. 

The HERC serves Hennepin County and processes 365,000 tons of waste per year. That averages out to six pounds of waste per person, per day (yikes). This doesn't include construction and demolition or yard waste, which are processed at other facilities. 

On average, HERC burns 3,000 tons of waste each day. Trucks dump on the tipping floor, and the waste enters the pit, which holds 7,000-10,000 tons, before being craned into the burners. For kids that love diggers and machinery - running the crane would be a dream job! 

The tipping floor on the left is where garbage trucks dump their loads. Waste is then pushed into the pit. The crane moves waste around - pulling out large objects like mattresses and bicycles. Loads are then craned into the burners on the right, where waste is incinerated, and heat captured and turned into energy.

The tipping floor on the left is where garbage trucks dump their loads. Waste is then pushed into the pit. The crane moves waste around - pulling out large objects like mattresses and bicycles. Loads are then craned into the burners on the right, where waste is incinerated, and heat captured and turned into energy.

The burning process is highly regulated for emissions, and HERC continues to come in well under their authorized emission rates. The onsite burning (at 1,500-2,000 degrees!) in huge, multi-story ovens, provides 31 megawatts of energy to Xcel - heating Target Field and several other downtown businesses. Recovered heat from the Cooling Tower is used to heat glycol tubing underneath the Target Station Pavilion, which means no snow removal required (no need for staff and no need for chemicals). 

The tour is open to the public and I encourage everyone to go see it. I'm trying to do what I can to help people actually see what we produce - to get the trash out from behind the building. 7,000 tons of trash sounds like a lot - but seeing it burns that image into your mind!

We can do better than six pounds of waste per person, per day. We can use what we now think of as waste as a resource. Limit purchasing. Be thoughtful about packaging. Choose recycled content items. Compost. 

Pay attention to what you're producing and know where it goes after you're done with it.


Minneapolis Organics Collection

It's amazing how things change as you get older ... especially the things you get excited about. For example, I received a surprise, already installed new toilet for my birthday a few years ago and it remains one of my all time favorite gifts! 

I felt that giddy excitement with the City of Minneapolis roll-out of single sort bins for recycling, which I almost always fill to the top - as a single person. That excitement continues for the City of Minneapolis organic collection. Although I am disappointed the bins are small, and that my house isn't on the spring 2015 map, I'm still proud that steps are being taken to change the way we address waste. 

I've been participating in commercial grade composting at home for about a year now, dropping the bags off at a site not far from home. It's so easy and so remarkable. I'm down to about one plastic-sized Target bag of trash per week. It basically just contains product wrappers. Between that and bags of dog poo, everything else is composted or recycled! It's so satisfying. 

I wish that my amazing green bin would arrive sooner, but until then, I'll continue to drop off compost. Better yet, I'll continue to work with companies big and small to help them achieve the same sort of excitement that comes from progress. I urge you to do the same.

Dirty Little Secrets.

I recently finished reading Edward Humes' "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash". Working in this industry, I was assuming it would cover a lot of information that I already knew. It did. But I was also blown away by several sections of this book. 

In addition to siting the Environmental Protection Agency's 249.6 million tons of trash (in 2008), Garbology also pulled in research from Colombia University and the journal BioCycle, which has "more accurate, scientific surveys". This research reviews that we're sending "twice as much waste to landfills as the EPA's calculations let on, and recycling proportionately far less than the rosy official stats suggest", or 389.5 million tons. 

We have to start getting trash out from behind the building. It's too easy for people toss their bags in and have no idea where it goes.

We are in denial about our dirty little secrets.Waste certainly isn't sexy. But there is so much potential to change the way we consume. 

Be thoughtful about what you buy. Be thoughtful about how you dispose of things. Reuse and Repurpose as much as possible. And as a last resort, recycle and compost. 

Read this book. Or several other good ones out that. Take a little time to be aware.

Creative reuse

In the past few weeks, a few stories have come out highlighting companies repurposing materials in interesting ways, such as Jet Blue - they've been collecting their used uniforms and are saving 18.5 tons of fabric from the landfills! And then there is Repurposed Materials in Denver - their entire store is made up of repurposed materials from pool covers to fish netting.

Over the past few years, with I've been able to work on similar projects - keeping interesting items out of the landfill with a little creativity and industry connections. Projects have ranged from scraps from t-shirts that needed the logo's destroyed that turned into hundreds of new onesies for mom's in need by Bundles of Love in Minneapolis, a decommissioned hot air balloon donated to an environmentally focused apparel non-profit for a design contest in Minneapolis, a jumbo hanger used during an event now draws people into the Dress for Success office in San Antonio, and scraps of wood from an industry product launch that now make up part of an indoor skate park in Brooklyn. 

So much waste is added to the landfill every day. With a little time an effort, there are so many alternatives to this practice! But let's not forget to try to reduce consumption first.

State Fair Waste Audit

Native Sustainability, in collaboration with Made, is working with the Minnesota State Fair to assess the probability of all trash cans being converted to compost cans. That switch could save the Fair more than $50,000 a year, as well as provide amazing educational opportunity about organics in the waste stream. 

Minnesota Public Radio did a short piece about the initiative. Read it here!

I also did an interview with Environmental Initiative regarding the efforts. Many thanks to the EI staff members who helped us with day one of sorting! 


Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables

France got it right. 

Noting the vast amount of "not perfect" food waste being created (300 MILLION tons per year), they started a new campaign. It reached 13 million people in a month! We're not perfect, why do we expect our food to be? This gives a whole new meaning to "it's what's inside that counts". 


Photos in a weeks worth of trash...

Photographer, Gregg Segal beautifully captured images of people in a of weeks amount of their person waste contribution (which the EPA estimates at 4.38 pounds per person, per day). He has ongoing series, “7 Days of Garbage,”. Segal hopes "...the series is guiding people toward a confrontation with the excess that’s part of their lives. I’m hoping they recognize a lot of the garbage they produce is unnecessary".

See the related Slate story here

This is a great step in getting waste out from behind the building. We need to be aware of what our contributions really are and trust that people can change. Let's start from source reduction, thoughtful purchasing, getting food into hungry people and animals and only then, to compost. We can do better.