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Twin Cities trash is piling up so quickly, 4 landfills may need to expand

Waste generation in the metro area was up 30% in the past year.

Twin Cities residents' garbage is piling up so quickly, its landfills are running out of space. The immediate fix, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) says, is to make four south metro landfills larger.

The agency this week detailed its proposed "short-term solution" to handle the flow of garbage going from area homes to nearby dumps. It involves expanding the garbage capacity at four landfills in the area by a total of 5.6 million tons, which would be allocated in this manner:

  • Pine Bend Sanitary Landfill (Inver Grove Heights) – 2,398,746 tons
  • Burnsville Sanitary Landfill (Burnsville) – 1,692,893 tons
  • Rich Valley Landfill (Inver Grove Heights) – 893,899 tons
  • Dem-Con Landfill (Shakopee) – 627,244 tons

This would provide a place for Twin Cities waste for about seven years, according to the agency. A spokesperson for the MPCA said how these expansions might impact adjacent land isn't yet known – that conversation occurs during the permitting and environmental review process.

"With that said, it is common when landfills expand to also increase the footprint, but not always," the spokesperson added.

The MPCA has also explored a longer-term expansion plan for the Burnsville landfill. Each landfill must go through the required environmental review and permitting process. Public meetings are planned for June, with a final decision expected sometime this summer.

Related: PFAS 'forever chemicals' found at nearly all of Minnesota's closed landfills

The agency is also exploring a significantly larger expansion of the Burnsville Sanitary Landfill that would add 40 years to its life. This plan would add 23.6 million tons of capacity - shrinking the waste disposal footprint by 12 acres, but pushing the garbage's peak much, much higher.  

The maximum height would increase 262 feet, reaching a peak of 1,082 feet. For context, that's about the height of the observation deck at Chicago's John Hancock Building.

The MPCA would require the Burnsville Sanitary Landfill to test for PFASs and 1,4-Dioxane pollutants in its groundwater sampling, which it currently doesn't do. But the agency's  draft supplemental environmental impact statement found this expansion "would not affect groundwater quality," barring an "extreme storm event" of some sort.

The EPA estimates each person generates about 4.9 pounds of waste every day, a figure about twice as high as 50 years ago.

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The Twin Cities' waste conundrum

The Twin Cities metro area usually generates about 3.3 million tons of waste annually, the MPCA said. But in the past year, the amount of garbage going to landfills went up 30%. 

This isn't necessarily unique to the area. Researchers found a significant influx of plastic waste in particular during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to more medical waste, an increased demand for single-use plastics, and regular disinfecting measures.

But it's still a problem, as the metro "is running out of landfill space to manage waste as our landfills fill up," said MPCA Assistant Commissioner for Land Policy and Strategic Initiatives Kirk Koudelka.

What about recycling? As the MPCA's most recent recycling and waste scorecard makes clear, a significant amount of recyclable material is still making its way to landfills. 

Of all discarded mixed plastics in the Twin Cities metro, for example, only about 10% was actually captured for recycling. The rest - more than 311,000 tons - went into landfills.

An MPCA spokesperson said the last time the agency did a waste composition study was back in 2013. AT the time, it found 63% of what had been thrown away could have been recyclable or compostable organics. (The spokesperson noted numbers have likely changed since then.)

Related: What should you do with all the ice packs in your meal delivery kits?

In its annual scorecard, the MPCA says preventing waste "is the only way to slow or stop the upward trend" of waste generation.

“We don’t take decisions to expand landfills lightly,” said Koudelka. "Additional capacity is a short-term solution. We are also looking at the long-term, big picture on how to best manage our waste so it does not need to be landfilled."

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