The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners wants to cut waste. And according to a recent county report there is roughly 2.8 trillion pounds of waste produced in the county every year. That is over 8,000 tons produced each day, totaling 1.3 million tons, or enough to fill the downtown baseball stadium 11 times, each year.
The county wants to change that and, in February, released the Hennepin County Zero Waste Plan that is expected to go to the board for approval in April.
The Zero Waste Plan builds on the county’s Climate Action Plan and sets the commitment of “achieving a zero-waste future.”
“In 2019, I led much of the work that eventually became the county’s Climate Action Plan – a living policy that we are continually iterating on to set more aggressive goals towards a more resilient and sustainable future,” said District 3 Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene, who represents southwest Minneapolis and St. Louis Park.
“One element of the draft Zero Waste Plan that most excites me is the intentional way my colleagues, staff leadership, and I continue to take on the biggest issues of our generation by layering supportive policies on top of each other,” Greene said, “to create real, transformational change in infrastructure and community practice that offer so much promise for the generations to come.”
The Zero Waste Plan defines a zero-waste future as “a waste management system where all materials are designed to become resources for others to use. One that systematically avoids and eliminates the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserves and recovers all resources, and does not burn or bury them.” The plan indicates that success will be “diverting 90% or more of all discarded materials from landfills, incinerators, and the environment.”
In 2021, according to the plan, the residents and businesses of Hennepin County only recycled or composted about 39% or 507,000 tons and the remaining 793,000 tons was either burned or buried. That year, 34% of the 1.3 million tons went to landfills and 27% was burned at the county’s downtown Minneapolis garbage incinerator, also called the Hennepin Energy Recover Center (HERC).
State law requires Hennepin County to prepare a solid waste management plan every six years to implement the state’s plan for the metropolitan area and reach the state’s goal of diverting 75% of its waste by 2030. Development of the county’s next solid waste management plan will begin in 2023 for adoption in 2024. The county will use the solid waste management planning process to further prioritize and implement the Zero Waste Plan over the next six years.
The Zero Waste Plan aims to create a materials management system that reduces racial disparities, adopt policies that accelerate the transition to a zero-waste, expand county waste education, grants, and programs, and implement new programs to reduce waste and support reuse.
Work on it started in January of 2022. “To create this draft plan, the county was part of more than 500 conversations with community members, collaboration with 18 community groups, 10 meetings with sector stakeholders,” said Greene. “The robust collaboration inspires a lot of optimism for the program’s success but even such a large pursuit will have gaps and we look forward to additional feedback.”
People can provide feedback online, through a survey and were invited to an online meeting that was held on March 9. You can find the draft plan, the survey and the March 9 presentation at https://beheardhennepin.org/zero-waste-future/.
Comments submitted by March 20 will be considered by county staff as the plan is finalized, and a summary of the survey and all comments will be shared with commissioners before the consider amending and approving on a final plan.
The plan outlines over 50 strategies aimed at increasing the recovery of recyclables and organics, finding alternatives for hard to-recycle materials, reducing consumption, and reducing waste by influencing what is sold into the region.
“I imagine residents will be energized by the steps Hennepin County is taking towards a zero waste future, steps to ensure we are addressing climate change and building a more equitable region,” said Greene. “That commitment starts with looking at how and what waste is generated, by the county organization, by residents, and by businesses and what we do with that waste.”
If the actions in the Zero Waste Plan are successfully implemented, the plan estimates that they will divert between 76% to 82% or approximately 500,000 tons of waste through recycling, composting, and waste reduction. Part of this will require that all the food waste and recyclable materials now thrown away will be composted and recycled and no longer sent to the garbage burner or landfill.
Some actions can likely be done more easily or independently by the county, especially if funding is available, like expanding drop-off options, increasing waste education programming and establishing more reuse and repair centers. One action that may face some opposition from building owners and operators would be to expand composting or organic waste programs and services throughout the county and into commercial, office and apartment buildings.
Others strategies will require policy or law changes and some could meet with stronger opposition like developing large scale organics processing facilities, transitioning to a better organized and more regulated system of waste haulers and collection, as well as mandating participation in recycling and composting programs and adopting zero-waste packaging requirements for food service.
Some, like a carry-out plastic bag ban or establishing a minimum diversion requirement for construction and demolition projects, would take action at the state level.
To reach the diversion rate of 90%, the county will need to divert an additional 155,000 tons a year. The pathway for diverting that last 10% and reaching the definition of zero waste as outlined in the plan, will, according to the plan, “require changes in technology, consumption, and manufacturing that are not available today.”
“There are some viable options the county is considering to achieve that 90% threshold,” said Greene, “but it’s likely that eliminating the extra tonnage will come down to individual changes in consumption and waste reduction.”
One action step that has received public attention is phasing out the use of the downtown incinerator. The plan calls for the county to “establish milestones to phase out the use of HERC as [the] county approaches zero waste.”
State Representative Frank Hornstein, at a rally last month hosted by the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table, shared his hope that this plan will lead more directly to the closure of the HERC. “The HERC emits more Greenehouse gas than a coal-based power plant,” he said. “It is one of the top emitters of global warming emissions in the state.” He believes closing it should be part of the zero waste plan. Advocates at the rally called for the plan to set a closure date of December 2025.
“I concur with State Rep Hornstein,” said Greene, while not specifying a date. “Our collective pursuit of a zero waste future is the path to closing the HERC.”
Greene supports the plan and said, “This draft plan improves the health of our region’s land, water, and air, supports the reduction of chemicals and carbon emissions that exasperate climate change, and offers specific supports for communities that have identified lack of equal access to recycling, composting, and diversion options as a limitation to an equitable zero-waste system.”
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