Incinerator's possible closure has people asking: What next for Twin Cities trash?

The Elk River waste-to-energy plant is slated to close in March.
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Unless a buyer is found within the next five months, an incinerator that burns a significant chunk of Twin Cities waste is going to close down.

The Great River Energy Board this past July approved a move to sell the Elk River Resource Recovery Project, located 30 miles northwest of Minneapolis, because of financial troubles.

It says it's "no longer financially sustainable due to current low prices in the regional energy market and the inability to procure sufficient municipal waste to operate the project at full capacity."

It has given a deadline of March 15, 2019 to sell the plant, at which point it will close down for good.

That will leave Twin Cities municipalities with a conundrum as to what they will do with their non-recyclable, non-compostable trash.

Currently, the Elk River plant diverts up to 300,000 tons of metro area waste away from landfill each year, not to mention the 200 million aluminum cans and 24 million pounds of steel it recycles in that same period.

The incineration of the waste meanwhile helps generate enough electricity to power tens of thousands of Minnesota homes every year.

But considering Rick Lancaster, Great River Energy's vice president, said that the plant "is no longer a competitively priced renewable energy resource," it no surprise that a buyer for the burner hasn't been found since July.

Where will the trash go?

The plant's impending closure means that the most likely alternative for the leftover Twin Cities trash is to send it to landfill.

The problem with this, as the Star Tribune explains, is that the four landfills operating in the metro area, in Elk River, Burnsville, Inver Grove Heights and Glencoe, will reach capacity within six years if the extra waste is diverted there, compared to (a still not ideal) eight years if the Elk River plant keeps running.

Meanwhile, the four other waste-to-energy plants serving the Twin Cities are already operating at near-capacity, the newspaper notes.

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Landfill ranks dead last in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's rankings of the most desirable waste disposal methods, with energy-to-waste preferred since a law passed prioritizing burning over landfill in 1980.

That said, there remains a debate over which is better environmentally between landfill or burning, with landfill's carbon and methane emissions compared with the burning emissions and local pollution caused by incinerators. As this New York Times piece from 2010 discuss, neither are ideal solutions. 

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As such another option is for cities and counties in the Twin Cities to really step up their game when it comes to recycling.

Currently, around half of the metro area's waste is recycled and composed, with 28 percent burned and 23 percent landfilled.

But the MPCA has set a target of reducing the amount of Twin Cities trash going to landfill to just two percent by 2020, and 1 percent by 2030 by boosting recycling, waste-to-energy and composting rates.

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