Curious where your trash goes after haulers take it away? The answer is about to get a lot simpler in the east metro: Up in flames.

Starting in 2018, garbage haulers in Ramsey and Washington counties will be required to truck trash bags left at the curb to a publicly owned facility in Newport. When that trash gets there, it can be ground up into a material that’s incinerated to produce power.

The Ramsey/Washington Recycling & Energy Center turns garbage into a material suited for burning primarily at Xcel Energy power plants, after removing recyclable metals and smaller scraps. Much of that burnable “fluff” comprises plastic bags and non-recyclable paper.

The counties bought the Newport facility for $24 million several years ago, after years of subsidizing a private owner to keep its fees competitive with landfills — to the tune of $8.4 million a year. The goal of supporting the plant was to get more value from the area’s trash, in the form of energy and recyclables, rather than putting it in a landfill.

“We have tried working with the market,” said Zack Hansen, Ramsey County’s environmental health director. “And the company that owned it tried valiantly to figure out how to compete with landfills. And the market didn’t work.”

Trash haulers typically choose where to truck waste based on factors including the fee charged per ton of waste and distance traveled. By buying the Newport facility and running it, however, the counties can force trash haulers to take trash there or to transfer stations that service the facility — taking advantage of a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made it legal.

That will redirect about 100,000 tons of the two counties’ trash per year, on average, that has been flowing to landfills. So far, about 335,000 tons of annual waste from the two counties has gone to the Newport facility.

The requirement goes into affect on Jan. 1, 2018. It will be unique in the metro area, though a number of Minnesota counties outside the metro also require haulers to bring trash to certain facilities.

For residents, the most visible impact is likely to be in their trash bills. The per-ton fee paid by haulers will rise by $7 — since it will no longer be subsidized — which Hansen estimated will cost residents about $7 more per year per household.

Nonprofit recycling firm Eureka Recycling opposed the purchase of the Newport plant. Kate Davenport, Eureka’s co-president, said her company disagrees with pumping millions of dollars into a facility geared toward burning garbage, rather than making similar investments in recycling.

“Invest those dollars in increasing education and developing incentives for getting the recycling out of the trash can,” Davenport said, adding that the bulk of what’s in the trash can be recycled or composted.

Hansen said they hope to add upgrades at the facility to extract food waste out of the trash they receive. Currently, the plant recycles about 3.5 percent of what’s delivered, largely by pulling out aluminum cans.

He said they are also interested in alternatives to incinerating the waste, which could prove more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly.


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