For a reason that closely parallels the 2013 Minneapolis Energy Options campaign, the broader environmental justice community is paying close attention to Covanta, the company that operates the Hennepin County Garbage Burner facility located just north of the Twins Stadium in Downtown Minneapolis. In a similar way to how Xcel and Centerpoint’s contract with Minneapolis expired at the end of 2014, Covanta’s contract with Hennepin County and the Power purchase agreements for the downtown garbage burner both expire in 2018. As the operator of 40 incinerators over the world, Covanta will want to renew their contract in 2018. However, this expiration date presents the community with a powerful leverage opportunity to organize for more sustainable options for our tax dollars. If we can devoting these few remaining years before 2018 to make dramatic progress toward Zero Waste, it will provide the county the leverage it needs to end the contract when Covanta asks for a renewal.
We might have just seen the start of a long-overdue grassroots movement on September 18th, when Eureka Recycling convened the first-ever Zero Waste Summit. The event brought together numerous innovative entrepreneurs and creative visionaries who are determined to work through the challenges of creating a zero-waste future. 14 speakers from the Twin Cities region and 3 national leaders gave brief and focused presentations on their inspiring organizations and unique projects.
Nearly 90% of materials currently being stashed into landfills or incinerators can be either recycled or composted. Once they are understood in this context, incinerators become monuments of wasted opportunity to do truly great things and landfills become graveyards of lost economic development. In regard to our energy options, recycling and composting this 90% of discarded waste would save 3 times the amount of net energy that could be generated by sending it though an incinerator. In addition, recycling and composting create 10 times as many jobs per unit of waste than landfilling or incinerators that are expensive to build and operate.
The downtown burner poses environmental justice concerns that go beyond air pollution. We have to remember that the garbage sent into the burner is not suddenly zapped into the 13th dimension of non-reality as soon as the energy from it is harnessed. Incineration leaves behind hazardous and toxic bottom ash and fly ash that nobody wants yet has to go somewhere.
Anaerobic digestion for organic waste is a superior option which deserves recognition in the Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership. It provides a rare-win-win solution that produces both carbon- neutral energy though fully captured methane and creates a byproduct in nutrient-rich compost for garden soil.
It is only fair to provide a vision of what does a successfully implemented zero waste plan looks like. First of all, source separation receptacles will need to be made universally available and attended to so that recyclables, compostables and reusables can be separated away from the general waste stream. Reusables can go to re-use centers, repair centers and deconstruction centers all of which open up the market for the deconstruction business as opposed to brusquely demolishing old buildings and landfilling the rubble. And what about the residual left overs still in the general waste stream? They will then go to residual screening facility that doubles as a zero-waste research center that is inclusive of input from both experts and the community. The residual waste that still can’t be captured gets biological treatment above ground instead of given a chance to turn into leachate in a landfill while interim landfills are only a last resort.
In addition to material items, there is also a human side to a zero-waste plan as there are no throwaway people. We can train unemployed or people recently released from prison in the arts of repair, reuse, recycle, and provide them jobs in value-added enterprises. From this perspective, incinerators literally burn jobs.
When public decision makers sink public investment into incineration, it poses a threat to people’s well-deserved ability to earn a livelihood through recycling, composting and repurposing jobs.
What has particularly corrupted public decision making on the state level are companies like Waste Management and the very small minority of interest groups that actually gain monetarily off of stashing materials in the landfill. They play a parallel role to electric utilities who abuse their power as monopolies to quash the market for local renewable energy. They also play a parallel role to big agribusiness oligopolies who try to crowd small family farms and sustainable organic agriculture out of the market. And out of these three parallel struggles, an intersectional movement for climate justice and sustainability is born. In recent years, the City of Minneapolis has made progress on all three of those fronts by launching a Zero Waste Initiative, forming a Clean Energy Partnership and removing obsolete restrictions against local urban agriculture. Even if Minneapolis were to become a Zero waste miracle by 2018, the downtown burner could be kept in business by refuse from surrounding suburbs whose local leadership are taking no action toward Zero waste programs. Zero waste efforts have to be the norm rather than the exception county-wide if we are to create enough leverage to challenge Covanta’s contract in 2018.
ADDENDUM: IMPLICATIONS ON CLIMATE
So far, the new city-wide pick up of compost is the public face of Mayor Hodges’ Zero Waste initiative, and for a good reason in terms of the Minneapolis Climate Action Plan. The United States could cut its greenhouse footprint by 20% by composting all that is compostable. When compost from organic waste is made available, it undercuts demand for synthetic fertilizer that requires huge amounts of fossil fuel energy to produce. Using compost and sustainable organic agriculture also closes the loop by replenishing nutrients back into the topsoil in a way that sequesters carbon into one of the world’s biggest carbon sinks and helps the soil retain water. We can sequester carbon by rebuilding the topsoil rather than continually removing and burning the biomass that is needed to sustain the fertility of farms and the biodiversity of forests.
When organic waste is placed in a landfill and decomposes in the absence of oxygen, then that creates the third largest human-attributed source of the potent greenhouse gas methane. Even in modern larger landfills, only 20% of the fugitive methane can be captured and burned to provide energy. As a result, diverting organic waste into composting is far more effective for energy savings than burning landfill gas for energy. Because biomass yields less energy per unit than coal, incinerators actually emit 1/3 more CO2 per unit of energy than coal-fired power plants. (NOTE 8)