Waste To Energy -- Wasteful?


Do you ever wonder where your trash ends up? Are you upset with the concept of landfills? Well, if you live in the Twin Cities, your trash likely won’t go to a landfill. Instead, it will go to a Waste To Energy System (WTES). Sounds great, right? The truth is that burning trash to generate some energy has many pros and many cons.

After collection, your trash will likely make its way to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) in downtown Minneapolis. This WTES is the final destination for about a quarter of the Twin Cities’ trash (about 365,000 tons annually). There are other WTE sites in the TC area, including the Newport Facility.

Take a field trip to the HERC and you’ll see a mountain of rubbish piled up on their tipping floor. Trucks dump anything and everything collected as solid waste, be it household trash, scrapped appliances, mattresses, recyclables, organic waste, the kitchen sink. All unsorted, all into the mountain.

touring icenter.jpg

They actually welcome visitors at the HERC, just set up a tour and then you can see these beautiful sights for yourself.

At the tipping floor a massive claw stirs the trash mountain until it becomes a “homogenous fuel”. It is then loaded into the boiler. Trash is burned and the resulting heat creates steam that turns a turbine, generating electricity. The fumes produced in the incinerator are carefully collected and treated so that greenhouse emissions and airborne toxins are reduced as much as possible. A more complete diagram of the process can be found here. The HERC is a high-tech facility that does perform some vital work, and, as usual, there are benefits and drawbacks.



  • Trash is kept from piling up in landfills, and more of the potential energy available in trash is harnessed through incineration.

  • Neighboring Target Field and the Metro Light Rail station use steam from the HERC for heating and melting ice.

  • Leftover scrap metals are collected and recycled, whereas in landfills they are not.

  • Trash volumes are reduced by around 90%, leaving only ash to be landfilled instead of persistent trash.

  • Gases and fumes are filtered and reduced as much as possible, whereas in landfills they are emitted haphazardly. Here’s a list of the HERC’s gas emissions (Note that CO2 is not listed).

  • WTES’s create jobs that landfills do not (AND! Recycling and composting create more jobs than WTE does!!!)



  • Unsorted trash is burned, destroying recyclables, compostables, and reusables that could be disposed of more properly. According to this PDF, around ⅔ of what they burn is either recyclable or compostable.

  • Greenhouse gases and airborne toxins are still produced, despite filtration, and pumped into metropolitan Minneapolis air.

  • Energy collection is not maximized. In the words of the HERC employee speaking at the tour I attended, “The primary goal of this facility is to reduce the amount of waste that is landfilled. The energy produced is secondary”.

  • Social injustices: Read below.


There are a few social justice issues that do not aid the HERC’s reputation. First off, it’s located in a primarily minority community in the North Loop. All the nasty air pollutants that are emitted from the facility are breathed by minority groups first. Janiece Watts, former Environmental Justice Organizer for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change says: “Asthma is a huge issue in north Minneapolis”. Read more.


According to an expert in the TC Zero Waste scene, the social injustice runs even deeper. Burning happens 24 hours a day, EXCEPT during Twins games. The fact that the facility is shut off during times when primarily affluent white baseball fans fill the stadium next door is concerning evidence that there is something harmful being pumped out, and that it is a privilege to not breathe it in. 


It’s a complicated trade off, because landfills are inherently awful, and WTES’s are not a good solution. They’re great at reducing the sheer quantity of trash, and do not stop numerous other environmental issues from occurring. Greenhouse gases, asthma, and toxic ash are the cost of WTES’s and the energy they produce.


WTE has been touted as a renewable energy source by some supporters. By saying that WTE is renewable, you are assuming that there will always be garbage to fuel the system, that this is okay and regenerative, and IT IS NOT.


The best way to limit your inputs into both landfills and WTES’s is to be mindful of the areas in your life where you most often create waste. Try making Zero Waste swaps that cut back the amount of stuff that goes into your trash bin. Here are some great tips, including a list of easy swaps. Ensure that compost and recyclables are sorted and disposed of correctly.

Reference the 5 R’s in your daily life.

  • When you refuse what you don’t need, you cut back on the amount of stuff entering your life, which cuts back on the amount of stuff exiting your life. This step is also most applicable in everyday situations like refusing paper napkins, disposable cups, receipts, etc.

  • By reducing what you have, you simplify your life. Embrace multifunction items like handkerchiefs, baking soda, jars, and castille soap to reduce the items you need to keep your house clean and tidy. It is easier to live when you don’t have lots of stuff to deal with.

  • Reuse things you already have! Turn your old T-shirts into rags, bags, etc. Keep your yogurt, salsa, and other jars and use them again to go Zero Waste Grocery Shopping. You can almost always find a new use for “old” things instead of throwing them out.

  • Recycle whatever you can. First, make sure that these items cannot be reused, and ensure that they can be recycled.

  • Compost anything and everything possible after exploring reuse options (like carrot top pesto, veggie stock, or infused vodka!)


Always be conscious of the stuff you’re discarding. Can it be recycled? Composted? Do you have to toss it at all? Is there a more creative way to reuse it? Keep in mind the 5 R’s before you discard anything, they will guide you to better practices. Think, and remember that when you do throw something out, it either sits in a landfill or is incinerated.


Clara von Dohlen