Curb Appeal

Features - General Business

Downtown Minneapolis’ solid waste facility is recognized for being a good neighbor.


Let's say you work at a refuse-burning center located, since 1989, in the warehouse district of a mid-sized city. The facility is firmly established in an industrial part of town. About 20 years go by, and the city decides to build a trendy new stadium for its major league baseball team right next door to your solid waste disposal facility.

Upon release of the news, there is quite an uproar and a high degree of consternation among the city's residents. The editor of the local newspaper receives many letters from outraged citizens.

What is the staff of the facility to do?

If you're the staff of the Hennepin Energy Recycling Center (HERC) in Minneapolis, you do a number of things, including beautification through landscaping. You also supply the steam you generate at the facility to the stadium, heating public areas and even the playing field. (After all, this is frigid Minnesota.)

HERC handles in excess of 365,000 tons of garbage each year—at least 1,000 tons per day. Burned, that waste material generates 35 megawatts of electricity, which the county then sells.

HERC's landscaping efforts won an Award of Honor in the category of Public Landscape Design, sponsored by the American Society of Landscape Architects – Minnesota. The award was given to the Minneapolis office of HGA Architects and Engineers. HGA is an integrated architecture, engineering and planning firm with seven offices around the country and experience in designing corporate campuses and buildings for the health care, arts, higher education and science and technology sectors.

And, as if that was not enough, HERC also received an excellence award from the Solid Waste Association of North America at Wastecon 2011 in Nashville, Tenn. The honor is given to solid waste programs and facilities that "advance the practice of environmentally and economically sound waste management."

An About Face
This reality belies much of the conversation that was going on among local sports fans as recently as early 2009. The usual conversations about issues like player trades and win-loss records suddenly gave way to worried Web posts from people having second thoughts about burning garbage or "all those smelly garbage trucks" near their new baseball stadium, Target Field.

The design HERC implemented made that consternation a moot point. In fact, the Hennepin County experience demonstrates that recycling or solid waste facilities can actually become an aesthetically pleasing community asset, if planned properly.

A Face Lift
Landscape highlights of the reborn HERC facility include new gardens that reconstruct forest habitats within an urban setting. The design uses plantings that provide attractive, user-friendly amenities for the pedestrian walkways to the ballpark. In addition, new sidewalks, plantings, lighting and street furniture augment pedestrian, public and private vehicle access to the stadium.

When it's time for a ballgame at Target Field, the downtown area teems with people walking, driving and riding the city's light rail system, which now terminates at the ballpark. Access isn't an issue with the range of options available.

What do they see of the waste-to-energy plant? Tall stacks, of course, but trees and flowers, too, along with handsome benches, all contributing to a pleasant environment.

And speaking of the environment, HERC has paid attention to that aspect of being a good neighbor, too. As Carl Michaud, the county director of environmental services, points out, using this central facility to discard material saves on fuel that would be used to make longer hauls to landfills farther away from the area, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well.

HERC also addressed complaints that it would be "an eyesore" or "fragrant neighbor" to the highly public areas around the stadium.

Michaud says a number of steps have been taken to control odors from the facility, including high-speed doors for trucks and powerful fans that pull odors into the fire, where they burn up. A moving grate keeps the garbage burning more efficiently and makes combustion more complete, according to HERC.

The non-hazardous ash resulting from combustion represents a 90 percent reduction in volume sent to the landfill. The exhaust gases from combustion pass through a cleaning system designed to remove mercury, lead, sulfur and nitrogen oxides. The gases then pass through baghouses to remove particulates.

A Generous Neighbor
The good neighbor status doesn't just mean that the Hennepin Energy Recycling Center is nice to look at and doesn't smell bad. The combustion process generates steam, which turns turbines and produces electricity that is used to heat downtown buildings along with the ballpark that sits adjacent to it.

The genesis of this municipal success lies in the 1980 passage of a state waste management act, which included waste reduction and re-use, recycling, composting, resource recovery (including waste to energy and composting), landfilling with methane recovery and landfilling without methane recovery.

The county developed programs—many including partnership with private organizations and public agencies—that have resulted in the recycling of 48 percent of municipal solid waste produced in the county. That plan also included the development of the HERC.

The site was selected because of its proximity to waste sources and the opportunity to clean up and re-use contaminated land—in this case, a Greyhound Lines maintenance garage. Construction began in 1986; operations began in the fall of 1989. All of this work has transformed the 12-acre waste conversion complex into what looks like a garden that enhances the HERC's function, infrastructure and history.

The neighborhood around the HERC has changed dramatically since the facility began operations in 1989. Hennepin County has made numerous improvements in controlling odors and improving the aesthetics of the facility and its surroundings. The county also has worked with community partners to ensure that HERC continues to be a good neighbor and an integral part of downtown redevelopment.


The authors are freelance writers based out of Minneapolis and Cleveland, respectively.