A growing share of Twin Cities trash is piling up in landfills, despite a yearslong state effort to steer the region away from burying garbage. Local landfills now want permission to expand capacity for the first time in almost two decades — and state officials are left with few alternatives.

Nearly a third of the metro area's waste was landfilled in 2019, the latest data available, a sharp increase driven by the closure of a garbage burner in Elk River. That's nowhere close to the state's goal of dumping only 2% of trash in landfills by last year, and recycling and incinerating everything else.

Last week, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency received four requests to allow more landfilling in the metro area. The agency solicited those applications last summer, since the region's remaining garbage burners are all running at capacity.

The most visible change, if approved, would likely be a proposal to pile garbage 260 feet higher at Waste Management's landfill in Burnsville beside the Minnesota River. Bloomington officials have objected to that plan, circulating unglamorous renderings of the "mound" and relating its size to nearby ski slopes.

"It's a little bit of a wake-up call that landfilling isn't going away. Landfilling actually needs to expand," said former MPCA commissioner John Linc Stine. "For people who think that our habits are improving and our waste handling is getting us closer and closer to a zero-waste future … we're not even remotely close to that at this point."

The MPCA has taken an aggressive stance against landfills in recent years.

It penalized landfills for accepting trash that could have been incinerated, relying on a three-decade-old statute that had never been enforced. That resulted in a lengthy court battle with the nation's largest trash firms, which the agency won — but not in time to save the Elk River burner.

The MPCA is trying to reach a state goal of recycling 75% of the metro area's waste (both traditional recycling and organics) by 2030.

Landfilling and incineration are the state's least preferred methods of disposing of waste, and both carry environmental costs. The state prioritizes incineration, however, because it produces energy, removes recyclables and avoids many of the lasting problems associated with landfills.

'We are out of capacity'

The metro area's two primary landfills, in Burnsville and Inver Grove Heights, are owned by the nation's two largest trash firms, Texas-based Waste Management and Arizona-based Republic Services. They submitted expansion letters to the MPCA last week. Two construction-demolition landfills in Shakopee and Inver Grove Heights also asked for permission to start accepting municipal waste.

The MPCA last allowed an expansion of how much municipal waste can be landfilled in the metro area in 2005. The agency solicited the current proposals simultaneously from all facilities, to avoid one of them rushing to win more capacity.

"This is the first time that there's actually been kind of a pinch point in the metro area, where the agency is saying, 'We are out of capacity,' " said Stine, who oversaw the enforcement effort against landfills under the Dayton administration. "If they don't do this, waste will continue to cross state lines."

About 123,000 tons, or 12%, of the metro area's landfilled waste ended up in western Wisconsin and northern Iowa in 2019. Waste firms warned in their applications that this will happen more without additional capacity — the Burnsville landfill is expected to hit its current limit by 2022.

Stine, now executive director of the environmental nonprofit Freshwater Society, said the region is not shrinking its waste footprint fast enough. Each Twin Cities resident generated roughly one ton of waste on average in 2019, roughly the same amount as 20 years ago, according to MPCA data.

Burnsville City Council Member Dan Kealey, who supported the preliminary Waste Management plan with a unanimous vote of his colleagues, said limiting capacity at the Burnsville landfill only forces the waste to go somewhere else.

"If there is no 'somewhere else' available in Minnesota, it's going to get on trucks and go to Iowa," Kealey said. "Is displacing our garbage from the Twin Cities to Iowa a really smart environmental decision? Probably not, right? So we have to deal with our own garbage, like every state does."

Growing recycling rate

About 47% of the metro area's waste was recycled in 2019, up from 30% a decade prior due in part to the rapid growth of composting. Waste Management, which also operates recycling facilities, argued in its application that there are "technological and economic barriers" to surpassing a 50% recycling rate, partly due to state regulations on composting facilities.

"Trends indicate an increasing rather than decreasing demand for [landfilling]," the company wrote to the MPCA.

Rep. Rick Hansen, who chairs the environment committee in the Minnesota House, said it is time the Legislature began debating options like "producer responsibility" laws that hold manufacturers accountable for disposing of their products, such as carpet.

"Solid waste has been a sleepy subject for many years in Minnesota," said Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul. "We had a great deal of activity 30 years ago that kind of set us on the path we're on. And now we're running out of options."

Where someone lives greatly affects whether their nonrecyclable trash is buried or burned, based on MPCA data. Ramsey and Washington counties have the least landfilling, because they require haulers to bring garbage to a facility in Newport where it is processed for any recyclables and later burned by Xcel Energy. In Minneapolis, trash is generally burned at Hennepin County's downtown garbage incinerator.

Trash in Scott, Dakota and Anoka counties, by comparison, is largely landfilled. Except in Ramsey and Washington counties, the destination of a load of garbage often depends on factors such as price and proximity.

Each disposal method has environmental risks. Incineration creates air pollution. Landfilling generates greenhouse gases and oozes toxic fluids, which must be carefully controlled and contained by specialized liners.

"There is no such thing as a leakproof landfill," Stine said.

The MPCA will review the applications in the coming weeks and hopes to have a preliminary decision this spring. Principal Planner Peder Sandhei said the last time the agency expanded local landfill capacity it lasted longer than originally expected. He says the agency's goal of 2% landfilling by 2020 was driven by the need to plan for the state's 2030 recycling goal and preceded the closure of the Elk River burner.

"We will continue to strive for higher recycling rates," Sandhei said. "But we still have to plan for our facilities based on what's currently happening on the ground."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732