The Potluck

New study highlights Minnesota’s use of trash incinerators, effects on health

By: - December 2, 2020 12:27 pm

Burning trash in urban incinerators has been linked to health problems among low income residents — and Black Americans in particular. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

This story has been updated. 

A new report highlights the impact of Minnesota’s municipal solid waste incinerators on human health. 

Minnesota ranks third in the nation for total number of waste incinerators, with seven total, according to the report by the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School. Some 338,000 people — roughly 6% of Minnesotans — live within three miles of an incinerator and are exposed to the plant’s air pollution. 

Incinerators emit toxic air pollutants, such as lead and mercury, that are linked to health problems like lung disease, high blood pressure, heart disease and asthma. Exposure to such pollutants can also increase the likelihood of complications from COVID-19, according to the report.

Proponents of incinerators say that the process keeps garbage out of landfills; the Twin Cities already sent more than twice the amount of garbage to landfills in 2015 as it did a quarter of a century ago. 

The communities most affected by emissions are ones most at risk for other health and respiratory issues — people of color and low-income communities. Six of Minnesota’s seven incinerators are located in such communities, the report said. 

The Hennepin County Energy Resource Center, which is near North Minneapolis, is one of the largest point-source emitters of nitrous oxide in the county, according to the Star Tribune

Waste-to-energy plants, which incinerate trash to produce electricity, create fewer emissions than other power generation methods at rates well below MPCA’s limits.

In 2017, Hennepin was the largest emitter of mercury and particulate matter 2.5, which are fine, inhalable pollution particles.  

The cost of incineration is more than just environmental; when Washington and Ramsey Counties made the switch to garbage incineration at the beginning of 2018, customers saw a 10% increase in their trash bills, per the Duluth News Tribune

Update: Angie Timmons, an environmental educator with Hennepin County, said that HERC accounts for a fraction of total air pollutants in the area; the majority comes from multiple sources, like car emissions, restaurants and small businesses.

“We do need to get to zero waste, but we’re really far away from it,” Timmons said. “Facilities like HERC are parts of the transition to it, but everyone needs to play a role in that process.”

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Dylan Miettinen
Dylan Miettinen

Dylan Miettinen is a Reformer intern. A fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota, he was born and raised in Omaha, Neb. He currently serves as the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. He's also worked for CNN, the Minnesota Media and Publishing Association and the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast.