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Where Does Our Garbage Go?

Colleen Schoenecker
Do It Green! Magazine

What is solid waste?

“Solid waste” is defined as garbage, refuse and/or other discarded materials resulting from human activities. The average Minnesotan generates 6 lbs. of solid waste per day, or over 2,000 lbs. annually. Most of us don’t realize that we have a solid waste problem in Minnesota. However, companies are producing more goods than ever before, and we are consuming these goods at a faster rate than ever. From convenient single-serving containers that use more elaborate packaging to new electronic devices that replace the older versions more quickly, we are throwing more and more garbage away. To be specific, Minnesotans generated approximately 5.4 million tons of garbage in 1999, and this number is increasing. Since 1992, there has been a statewide 30% increase in solid waste – a rate that has far outpaced Minnesota’s population growth of 7%.

Where does our garbage go?

Minnesotans recycle over 40% of all waste that is generated. We do an excellent job of recycling and are a national leader in this area. However, this still leaves roughly 3.2 million tons of solid waste to be disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner. In Minnesota, the primary ways that we manage the remainder of this waste is by sending it to either municipal solid waste (MSW) compost facilities, waste-to-energy facilities (also called resource recovery facilities) or in-state and out-of-state landfills. However, some waste still gets dumped or burned on site. On-site disposal is solid waste that is burned (burn barrels) or buried on a resident’s property and accounts for 1.5% of waste. MSW compost facilities sort incoming garbage and compost as much of it as possible (similar to city leaf composting sites). They manage less than 1% of our waste. Resource recovery facilities process solid waste by burning it and recovering energy, which is then used to provide electricity for local homes and businesses. These facilities manage 24.5% of Minnesota’s waste. Landfills are large tracts of land where solid waste and residuals from waste processing facilities are buried. They account for the majority of Minnesota’s waste taking in 33% of the state’s waste.

What is the problem?

The problem is that we are generating more solid waste each year, which we primarily landfill, and we are running out of landfill space. In 1999, there were 23 landfills that accepted waste in Minnesota. If waste generation continues to grow at its current rate without increased waste reduction, recycling, and resource recovery, landfilling will become Minnesota’s predominant waste management method by 2013, assuming we can site additional landfills in the state. If these land disposal trends continue, the available capacity of landfills in Minnesota will be exhausted in the next 10 to 20 years, and we will have no place to put all of the garbage we generate.

To further complicate these issues, landfills, compared to the other methods of disposal, are the least preferred method of managing waste (except for on-site disposal which has been illegal since 1969). Landfilling waste poses threats of long-term environmental risks, lost opportunities to save and recover resources and a substantial reduction in Minnesota’s limited land resources. Research has shown that there are considerable resource savings and environmental and economic benefits from the reduction, reuse and recycling of solid waste. Despite this fact, landfilling continues to grow.

What can we do?

First and foremost, we should reduce the amount of garbage we produce. Then we can look for creative ways to reuse items. For ideas on how you can reduce the waste you generate and reuse items, visit the web site and/or see the articles in this guide in the Green Gifts and Reducing, Reusing, & Recycling sections. Once we are reducing and reusing as much as possible, the next step is to recycle. One important thing we can do to take recycling to the next level is to look for and buy products made from recycled materials.

Even if we master the three R’s (reduce, reuse, and recycle), there will still be a need to dispose of some solid waste. Another step you can take is to find out where your garbage is going. By state law, your trash hauler is obligated to tell you where they take your garbage. Find a hauler who brings your trash to a resource recovery facility rather than to a landfill. By sending your solid waste to a resource recovery facility (or waste-to-energy facility), your trash will be converted to energy and the volume of trash to be landfilled will significantly decrease.

If it is not an option for you to have your trash sent to a resource recovery facility, the next best thing is to make sure that your trash is going to an in-state rather than an out-of-state landfill. Bringing waste to out-of-state landfills has become a preference for many haulers because it is generally less expensive. However, as a citizen you could potentially be held liable for any environmental damage caused at an out-of-state landfill. When your waste is disposed at a Minnesota landfill, you pay as part of your garbage service bill to not only haul away your garbage, but also to cover the costs to properly close, monitor, and manage the landfill for years to come.

Keep in mind that by practicing the three Rs, we can significantly minimize the amount of waste that needs to be disposed. Also, by learning more about where your garbage goes, you can choose the most environmentally preferable option available to you to manage your solid waste.

Problem Materials and Household Hazardous Wastes


What are they? Why are they a problem? What happens to them?

Problem materials are spent products that may contain hazardous components and require special handling when disposed of. When processed or disposed with mixed municipal solid waste (MSW) these materials may pollute the water or air, release a hazardous substance to the environment, or affect the safe or efficient operation of a solid waste facility. Examples of problem materials include tires, batteries, water-based paint, appliances, electronics, oil and oil filters, and mercury-containing items.

Household hazardous waste (HHW) is considered a subcategory of problem materials. Household hazardous wastes are wastes generated from household activity that exhibits characteristics of or is listed as a hazardous waste by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). Hazardous waste may cause or contribute to an increase in mortality or an increase in serious irreversible illness, or pose a substantial present or potential hazard to human health or the environment when improperly treated, stored, transported, disposed of, or managed. Household hazardous wastes are hazardous because they have, the characteristics of being flammable, corrosive, toxic, reactive, lethal or an oxidizer. Some common examples of household hazardous wastes are pesticides, aerosols, solvents, petroleum-based adhesives, oil-based paints, and corrosive cleaners.

The order of preference for waste management is as follows:

  1. Waste reduction and reuse
  2. Waste recycling
  3. Composting of yard waste and food waste
  4. Resource recovery through mixed-municipal solid waste composting or incineration
  5. Land disposal

We stress that reducing and reusing (give it to someone who can use it up or use it up yourself) are the preferred management methods. Unfortunately, not all waste can be eliminated this way. To protect the environment and human health, residents are encouraged to take their unwanted household hazardous wastes and problem materials to county drop-off facilities. The drop-off facilities accept and consolidate collected materials only. All of these collected materials are then shipped off-site for final disposition. Although a lot of this waste is reused or recycled, some waste still needs to be incinerated or sent to a landfill.

Having a place to dispose of Household Hazardous Wastes and Problem Materials is great, but it is also very costly for the County to properly manage everything. Costs to dispose of one gallon of waste can range from $1.86-16.30, while costs for batteries range from $0.40-7.27 per pound. Prices mentioned here include all labor, transportation, disposal and supplies. If we are a little more conscious about what and how much we buy, we may avoid having to get rid of a product all together.

An environmental movement you may begin hearing more about is Product Stewardship. Product stewardship is when all parties who have a role in designing, producing, selling, or using a product shall assume responsibility for the environmental impacts throughout that product’s life. Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) is one example of product stewardship. RBRC is a non-profit, public service organization created to promote the recycling of rechargeable batteries. RBRC’s Charge Up to Recycle! Program uses a metal recovery process to recycle the rechargeable batteries. The reclaimed metals are used in stainless steel production or to make new rechargeable batteries.

Bulked Materials

Some of the wastes that are brought to the facility can be bulked or decanned, meaning small containers are opened and the contents are poured into 55-gallon drums for shipment off-site. Wastes that are shipped off-site go to EPA and state approved facilities. Non-pesticide flammable wastes, which have a very high energy value are used by cement kilns as fuel. This process is called fuel blending or fuel substitution, meaning waste becomes a fuel source for industrial processes.

Bulked Material Examples Why is it a problem? What happens to it?
Oil-Based Paint Oil-based enamels, varnishes, shellacs, lacquers, stains and sealers. Considered hazardous because they are flammable and may contain heavy metals. After the paint is bulked it is shipped off-site and used as a fuel source by industrial processes.
Flammable Liquids Gasoline, thinner, fuel, furniture oil, and nail polish remover. Considered hazardous because they are flammable. After the flammable liquids are bulked, they are shipped off-site and used as a fuel source by industrial processes. Metal paint cans are recycled with scrap metal.
Water Based Paint Latex paint, stains, enamels, varnishes, shellacs, lacquers, stains, and sealers. Considered a problem material. Accepted because they are liquids, not necessarily because they are hazardous wastes. Prior to the early 1990Õs, mercury was used by manufacturers in latex paint as a fungicide. After the latex paint is bulked, it is shipped off-site and is recycled into latex-based paints, caulks or adhesives. Metal paint cans are recycled with scrap metal. Hennepin County has partnered with HirshfieldÕs Paint Manufacturing, Inc. to remanufacture some of the latex paint. This paint has been used on County buildings and added as a filler in concrete block during the construction of a new County building.

Lab Packs

Hazardous wastes that are not bulked are placed into containers called lab packs. Lab packs are when waste items are placed into drums, in their entirety, with a compatible packing material. These drums are then sent off-site for final disposition. From

Lab-Packed Material Examples Why is it a problem? What happens to it?
Poisons Pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, algaecides, rodenticides, fungicides etc.) Toxic to humans and animals. These wastes are shipped off-site to facilities specifically designed to incinerate these types of materials at very high temperatures.
Corrosive products (Acids and Bases) Lime remover, toilet bowl cleaner, drain and oven cleaner. Hazardous because they are corrosive or caustic and severely burn skin. These wastes are incinerated.
Flammable solids Adhesives, driveway sealers, contact cements and roofing tars. Hazardous because they are flammable. Sent off for high temperature incineration.
Reactives Water and air reactive products. Emit flammable or toxic gas upon contact. Dangerous when wet, spontaneously combustible. Sent off for high temperature incineration.
Oxidizers Bleach, concentrated hydrogen peroxide, hardeners. Corrosive and accelerate burning in fires. Sent off for high temperature incineration.


Problem Materials

The following material types are considered Problem Materials. All of these materials are sent off-site to contractors for proper management.

Problem Material Examples Why is it a problem? What happens to it?
Appliances Washers, dryers, microwaves, furnaces, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, refrigeratorsand freezers.


Banned from MSW in 1990. May contain mercury, polychlorinatedbiphenyls (PCBs) or freon which are hazardous to humans and animals. Freon depletes the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. All appliances are disassembled and component parts are recycled.
Consumer Electronics Stereo equipment, VCRs, TVs, phones, computers, printers, camcorders, etc. The amount of lead in a cathode ray tube (CRT) can be up to 8 pounds. Mercury, heavy metals and PCB capacitors are other concerns. All electronics are disassembled and Component parts are recycled.
Tires All sizes. Banned from MSW disposal in 1985. When stored in large piles they pose as a threat for disease from becoming a breeding ground formosquitoes, and can be a fire hazard as well. The tires are shredded and fuel blended for industrial processes.
Fluorescent Lamps Circular, compact, straight, u-bent, high intensity discharge (HID). Lamps contain mercury and are banned by the MPCA from being placed withMSW. Lamps are recycled.
Mercury Household products that contain mercury include thermostats and thermometers. Mercury, poses a significant threat to the health of people, animals, and fish, due to mercuryÕs persistence and potential for bio-accumulation. Mercury is recycled.
PCB Light Ballasts All fluorescent lamp ballasts that are not specifically labeled “does not contain PCBs” are assumed to contain PCBs. PCBs are also found in capacitors that are in appliances. PCBs were used from 1929-1977 for their good heat absorption qualities. PCBs are toxic to humans and animals and have bio-accumulative properties as well. The PCB liquid and contaminate parts are incinerated, the metal casings are recycled.
Antifreeze Antifreeze is used as an engine coolant and contains either propylene glycol or ethylene glycol. Antifreeze is poisonous if ingested and not listed as hazardous waste but needs to be managed properly. Used antifreeze is recycled into new antifreeze.
Motor Oil Used motor oil is a flammable problem material. Used motor oil is detrimental to the environment if dumped on the ground or down the storm sewer. Used motor oil is fuel blended for industrial processes.
Batteries Lead acid, alkaline, nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, lithium ion, etc. The hazardous components in batteries can consist of mercury, lead, and other heavy metals. The dry-cell batteries are separated by type, put into 55-gallon drums and are landfilled or recycled based on their specific chemistry. The lead in lead acid batteries is recycled and the acid is neutralized.



There are many different kinds of batteries available to consumers. The following are batteries that are hazardous and must be taken to a hazardous disposal site:

  • Automotive: from cars, boats, snowmobiles, golf carts, motocycles, all-terrain and wheelchairs.
  • Lead Acid or Gel Cell: video cameras, cell phones, cordless phones, flashlights, power tools, clocks, portable computers, security systems and wheelchairs.
  • Alkaline: (hazardous only if purchased before 2-1-92): toys, radios, calculators, watches, remote controls, tv’s and garage door openers.
  • Mercuric Oxide (no longer available for purchase): hearing aids.
  • Nickel Cadmium (Ni-Cd.): portable computers, tools, appliances, cell phones, radios, toys and electronic games.
  • Silver Oxide (button shaped with no marking): hearing aids, watches, calculators, toys, musical greeting cards and books.
  • Lithium: cameras, calculators, computer memory backup, pages, watches, hearing aids, digital thermomters, smoke detectors, video equipment, remote controls and garage door openers.

For non-hazardous batteries, drop them off at a household hazardous waste center. For rechargable batteries call 800-8-BATTERY for a list of retailers that accept them. Non-hazardous batteries include : nickel metal hydride, zinc air and carbon zinc.

Hazardous Waste collection sites in the Metro area:

This list only includes permanent sites, other metro counties do seasonal collections. If your county is not listed here, see your county web site. If you are outside the metro area contact:

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Household Hazardous Waste Helpline 651-296-6300 or 800-657-3864

Anoka: 763-323-5730

Dakota: 952-891-7020

Hennepin: 612-348-6509

Ramsey: 651-633-3279

Washington: 651-430-6655

Household Hazardous Waste Pointers

From L.A. Green Pages

1. Most importantly, don’t buy any hazardous products in the first place. Seek safer alternatives, and buy them even if they cost a bit more. The ultimate costs are a lot lower if you avoid damaging the environment and your health.

2. Spurn the use of poisons – pesticides, fungicides, etc. – as even their normal use puts toxins into the environment. And although they may appear to control the pests they are aimed at, they also kill those pests’ predators, your friends.

3. Most household hazardous waste becomes waste only when you decide that’s what it is. If there is any chance you will have a use for a hazardous material, don’t throw it away. Store it in a safe place, for another day. One exception is outlawed poisons.

4. If you must get rid of it, try to give it to someone who needs it, rather than disposing of it at a waste facility.

5. Buy rechargeable batteries for all your battery-operated toys and appliances. Household batteries are a big problem, containing heavy metals, alkalines, acids and other chemicals. Be sure to take used batteries to a waste facility.

6. Avoid buying or using products in aerosol cans. The propellants in older cans were usually CFC’s, which are destroying the ozone layer. They have often been replaced with gases such as butane, which are also damaging. All aerosol cans must be taken to a waste facility.

Where Garbage Goes

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