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Minneapolis Gets Trashed

Pick a spot on the map in the United States and you’re likely to come away fairly disappointed at that city’s ability to do anything sustainable with its trash. Take arguably the country’s most progressive city, San Francisco, which has set itself the goal of becoming the first “zero waste” city in America by 2020: Even as its recycling and composting efforts have gained traction, leading residents to carefully separate their coffee grounds from their aluminum soda cans, it hauls much of its trash to landfills in nearby counties—and would have sent the remaining refuse all the way to Nevada had its original plan not been shot down.

The sheer volume of trash that Americans throw out—we represent 5 percent of the world’s population yet produce 30 percent of its waste—overwhelms the valiant efforts of most municipalities. Nationwide, recycling rates have stalled over the past decade after rising steadily throughout the ’90s. Curbside recycling is too expensive for some communities.

That challenge and unhappy outcome, repeated daily in cities across the country, is what makes it so amazing to breathe deeply as you walk the streets outside of the Minnesota Twins’ relatively new stadium, Target Field, in downtown Minneapolis.

Incredibly, it smells just fine.

You would never know that you’re standing next to what is arguably the nation’s most successful trash incinerator, a massive 12-acre project that has emerged as an unlikely, low-profile resident of one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods. Just blocks away is Bachelor Farmer, a nouveau Scandinavian restaurant that has emerged as one of the nation’s hottest restaurants and hosted Barack Obama for dinner when the president passed through town in 2012. Loft condos nearby sell for a half-million and above. There’s a Caribou Coffee right next door, which itself is across from the renovated historic building that houses the city’s top architectural and advertising firms. And assuming things break right, all of these offices will one day be powered by that incinerator, which gobbles up 1,000 tons of trash a day—some of it from the surrounding North Loop neighborhood.

The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, better known as the HERC, has emerged as the centerpiece of Minneapolis’s own push to be carbon-neutral by 2030, as Minnesota’s largest city looks to vault itself into the world’s top tier of sustainable cities. In doing so, it hopes to join places like Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm that have a long reputation of balancing the environment and human impact. It’s an ambitious goal for the Midwestern city of 400,000, but one that Minneapolis hopes to achieve by transforming its residents’ relationship to their own trash, and one that it—and 17 other global cities, including Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm and San Francisco—all joined together to announce in 2014 during a meeting in Copenhagen when they created the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance pact.

Carbon neutral; zero waste; sustainable. These are the buzzwords of an environmentally-conscious, not to mention terrified, time. The push to limit, reuse or even recapture some energy from the things we no longer think we need has led some cities to push themselves toward hopeful, some might say unlikely, goals. 

In Minneapolis’ case, though, it all began long before Al Gore’s alarmist documentaries ushered in the modern focus on carbon and climate change. It began nearly a generation ago, in 1985, with Randy Johnson’s headline-grabbing trip to Europe.

***

HERC was born of an earlier environmental movement. Prior to today’s obsession with sustainability, many American cities were much more concerned about a more basic environmental problem—the festering sores of a century of the Industrial Age.

It was 1985 and Randy Johnson, then (as now) a commissioner for Hennepin, the county that surrounds Minneapolis, was leading the charge for the city’s newest, most controversial—and least tourist-friendly—landmark.

First elected not long after Love Canal horrified the nation, Johnson and the county he served were eager to find some better way of dealing with the vast amounts of trash the city produced and shipped to faraway landfills. A former attorney with the Federal Election Commission, Johnson’s buttoned-up job papered over a bohemian streak: early in their marriage, he and his wife sold nearly all their belongings and set off on a trip hitchhiking through Europe, North Africa and Turkey. Johnson knew that at the time Minnesota had over 100 moldering, decomposing pits full of waste. And though the state may have never had its Cuyahoga-on-fire moment of environmental reckoning, the landfills leaked often enough to offend politicians like him, who considered the issue of water quality a sacred matter in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and especially so in Minneapolis, divided as it is by the Mississippi River.

Looking back on it now, Johnson says there are a number of reasons why he became, in his words, “the trash guy.” As a Republican he was in the political minority, without a caucus and mostly left to find his own pet issues. When he was first elected in 1979, the state Legislature had just mandated that counties find a way to limit landfilling. Most had ignored the order, but Johnson found something he could burrow into and began poring over federal and state regulations, coming to the conclusion that waste-to-energy was the best alternative. There also was one ulterior motive, too.

As a kid, Johnson and his dad were often admonished by his mom when they came home from trips to the dump. “She used to tell us not to bring home more than we brought,” he says.  The landfill issue, then, was Johnson’s way of itching a scratch for scavenging he’d had since childhood. It gave him an excuse to learn about Minneapolis’ trash ecosystem, and therefore an excuse to wake up early and shadow the city’s garbage haulers. Trips that inevitably began with his wife giving him the same warning his mother had years before: “Don’t bring anything back,” he says she told him.

Johnson, for better and worse, became the face of HERC. For weeks in the mid-’80s, he and a few other county commissioners led the local nightly news as they traveled from Germany to Sweden to Austria to see what it looked like when trash was turned into electricity. In keeping with Hennepin, and Minnesota at-large’s, history of good governance, the trips were funded entirely by the companies bidding for the project. “Some of these vendors said we couldn’t see their plants because they were overseas,” Johnson says. “And I said, ‘That’s OK, I’ll go.’ My German back then was still pretty good. And I was able to muddle my way through Sweden.”

Even with a tremendous amount of due diligence, he and his fellow supporters were vilified. “[Protesters] put on Hazmat suits and paraded through our office,” he recalls. The first day cranes appeared on the job site, some of the more limber members of the opposition clambered up to the top and unveiled banners. The project may have been completed on time, under budget, and—because this was progressive Minnesota—using only union labor, that didn’t stop someone, Johnson says, from spiking the first batch of burned trash.

On its first air quality test, the incinerator failed and registered distressingly high numbers. As Johnson recalls, “The speculation was that someone snuck in a large amount of batteries.” Though that rumor was never confirmed, what is true is that in the 25 years since HERC started burning greater Minneapolis’ trash, the facility has never come close to going over the strict pollution control limits it exceeded on that very first test.

Johnson was told a lot of things about what HERC would do to Minneapolis. The facility was  separated from downtown by only the width of a freeway, but it may as well have been in Wisconsin. The only sign of life nearby was the Ford Center, a 10-story monument to the logistical genius of the car company’s founder that had once pumped out Model T’s, but in the intervening decades had, like everything else in the neighborhood, gone to seed. “There was nothing there,” Johnson recalls.

That didn’t stop his opponents from imagining the worst. The northern, poorer side of the city would be under a constant cloud, they warned. Asthma rates would rise. And that wasn’t even the worst of it. “They were really worried about the smell,” he says. Minneapolis, according to those who disagreed with HERC’s construction, was about to become the equivalent of the dirty kid in urban America’s classroom. “They said it’d be so bad we’d literally be killing people,” Johnson says.

What happened next, however, proved those protesters wrong. The rumored batteries incident turned out to be a one-off. No great gas clouds enveloped the northern, or any other part, of the city. HERC was a good neighbor. Even if, at the time, it didn’t have to be a neighbor to anyone.

***

Flash forward 25 years and HERC has become something entirely different. Now, the neighborhood that surrounds it is Minneapolis’ most trendy. The North Loop, as it’s called, is—like so many other parts of urban America—undergoing a renaissance of new construction, new nightlife and new neighbors. By accident, the thing many Minnesotans once believed would be the city’s biggest, smelliest and potentially most dangerous eyesore has become something entirely unique in American waste management: the powerful heart of the city’s most desirable neighborhood.

“There’s no other plant quite like it in the country,” says Ted Michaels, head of the Energy Resource Council, the trade organization for companies that own and operate waste combusters like the HERC.

In some ways, it’s an analogy too for waste-to-energy projects nationwide, which are undergoing their own quiet resurrection decades after the original fad passed. Facilities like HERC are returning to the vanguard of national discussions about energy policy, as the push for sustainability, advances in technology and environmental concerns have sparked debates about whether cities can be “carbon neutral” or “zero waste.” The rise of renewables, of which waste-to-energy is one, has given hope to the promise of a cleaner future—or at the very least one that might not look so much like our carbon-spewing present. Yet waste-to-energy’s past is also proof that a mostly free market and a lack of federal energy policy means that future can often get cloudy, and fast. What looks like a sure thing today can quickly fade given the right (read: wrong) circumstances.

According to Michaels, there are 84 facilities like HERC in the country. In 1978, after the energy crises of the previous years, Congress passed a law called PURPA (the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act) that gave smaller, homegrown facilities a guaranteed market into which they could sell energy. Over the next decade-and-a-half, more than 100 plants were built. But construction first slowed and then stopped completely when swings in energy prices resulted in cheap electricity and even cheaper landfilling. A saturation point was met and soon plants were closing as quickly as they had been opening. “When you have low energy prices and low waste prices,” Michaels says, “it makes the economics of waste-to-energy a little more difficult. Those are the two arenas we play in.” Among the facilities that survived the downturn, a small number like the one located in Hempstead, Long Island and another near the Van Dorn Metro Station in Alexandria, Virginia, have managed to coexist beside shops, homes and an ever-expanding residential population. But none anchor a neighborhood quite like HERC.

Minneapolis residents didn’t start scrambling to buy up their piece of the North Loop in the past few years because it happened to feature a waste incineration plant. The real change began when the Pohlad family, the owners of baseball’s Minnesota Twins, went looking for a new stadium to replace the aging Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. When they didn’t get their first choice of a parcel next to the river, the family turned its attention to a compact space just west of downtown.

Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat, one of the leading proponents of both the HERC and the stadium that would become Target Field, says that initially the Twins owners were more than a little reluctant about the new site. “It was,” he explains, “just a parking lot and a hole next to a place that burned garbage.” That reluctance changed the more the owners realized how both the land and the HERC offered unusual benefits for a baseball team. “The tightness of the site made it easily walkable from downtown,” he says. What’s more, being located next to a massive city-block-size incinerator offered an unexpected feature that a baseball team playing in an open-air stadium in Minnesota actually needed: Lots and lots of heat.

Underneath Target Field is a one-foot-wide pipe that runs from the HERC to a series of smaller pipes just below the grass. Gary Glawe, senior director of ballpark sytems for the Twins, says the steam that runs from the HERC into those pipes makes it possible to keep the grass alive throughout Minnesota’s harsh winters. It also allowed Glawe, along with a tireless staff, to keep the ballpark open one day two years ago, when an overnight snow threatened to cancel a Twins game. Glawe said he and his staff used the hot water provided by the HERC’s steam to hose off every exposed seat and make the stadium habitable by the first pitch that evening. “Without that relationship with [the HERC] we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of things we need to do to keep the stadium running right,” he says.

Shortly after the Twins broke ground on their new stadium in 2007, the Pohlad-owned development group United Properties began snapping up available land in the North Loop. The developers bought and renovated the historic Ford Center. Next to it they built a seven-story office building that this year will begin housing Be The Match, a nonprofit that operates the largest marrow registry in the world in order to fight life-threatening blood cancers like leukemia. And United has plans to turn a grassy parcel right next door to the HERC into yet another office building. In the process, United Properties Executive Vice President Bill Katter says commercial rents have more than doubled in just four years and occupancy in the North Loop is 10 percent higher than in surrounding parts of the city.

“We not only created an environment where business could succeed,” he says, “we improved the market. The North Loop has gone from being a sleepy up-and-comer to  the neighborhood in Minneapolis.”

Last July, that neighborhood’s transition turned another corner when the latest extension of Minneapolis’ local light rail line opened right next to Target Field. Like the baseball field next door, the pavilion outside of the light rail station will also be heated year-round by leftover steam from HERC, meaning no Minneapolis residents used to dealing with Minneapolis winters will have to worry about slipping on ice while walking from their train. With a new, easy transportation option have come even more condos, employers and people who want to live, work, and eat right next to HERC. When Ted Michaels, the waste-incinerator expert, says there’s no other plant like it in the country, he isn’t exactly referring to the fact that the facility is a short walk from restaurants that serve lobster guacamole and $10 hot toddies. But that’s exactly what has happened.

“We see HERC as an energy asset in our neighborhood,” says Nick Koch, associate vice president of HGA, the architecture firm that moved into the renovated Ford Center, and also chairman of 2020 Partners, a forum made up of business and city leaders whose goal is to attract more development in the North Loop.

Koch’s group has spent a great deal of time envisioning what the North Loop might look like years from now. Some of those dreams may soon even come to be a reality, like the proposed soccer-only stadium for Minnesota’s MLS expansion team. And in every presentation made to those who might change the neighborhood, says Koch, HERC is front and center. “It is remarkable how much sustainable development is going up around [it],” he says.

***

At this point, Carl Michaud says he doesn’t even notice the smell anymore. Michaud is the director of the Environmental Services Division of Hennepin County, a position he’s held for 27 years. In that time he’s made countless trips up HERC’s stairs, past the burners and up the elevator that leads to the control booth, 10 stories above a giant mound of trash that’s waiting to be converted into electricity.

It’s a Friday morning and Michaud watches as a giant remote-controlled claw picks up, sorts and tosses the trash into the burners. “The most we’ve ever had is 10,000 tons,” he says. “Rainy days are the worst because everything gets soggy and heavy.”

Before dawn every morning, trucks scattered throughout greater Minneapolis rumble toward HERC with full payloads, representing close to 40 percent of the total amount of the county’s trash. After entering, those trucks then drive across what’s known as the tipping hall—a cathedral-size monument to solid waste—and dump what they’ve gathered onto the tipping floor, where it enters what workers call simply “the pit.” (“We’re sophisticated in our wording,” deadpans Michaud.) From there the grapple claw attached to the crane overhead picks up the trash and places it into one of two feed chutes, which lead to furnaces burning at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Metal gets shunted to conveyers that lead outside the facility and eventually recycled. Fumes pass through a thorough filtration system. And the only sign that what goes on inside has any connection to the outside world are the power lines that run to an Xcel Energy-owned substation a half-mile south of the plant. There, power is fed into Xcel’s normal grid. HERC produces enough to light and run 25,000 homes—and one day soon it may do much more than that.

A career’s worth of experience may have left Michaud immune to the smell, but that’s not the case for just about any other living human being. It’s a  stuck-in-your-clothes-for-the-rest-of-the-day scent that repels even the media minder who says she always skips this part of the tour. The odor somehow is made even worse by the noise and dust that accompany it; three senses being overwhelmed is three times as bad as just one.

That smell, not to mention the possibility of toxic air, was of primary concern when the Twins began seriously considering the site next door. And it’s a big reason why Michaud has helped turn HERC from merely a good neighbor into the kind that everyone would prefer to have: the one you forget is there. In order to do so, Michaud and some of his staff spent months before the Twins first broke ground donning a device known as the Nasal Ranger. The equivalent of a hand-held telescope that goes over your nose, the ranger helped HERC employees measure smell levels from every angle, and eventually gave them—and the Twins—enough peace of mind to go ahead with the massive project.

As he opens the door to the outside, Michaud enters a space that’s almost entirely odor free, a result of the facility’s negative pressurization. Walking around its 12-acre footprint, Michaud points to the area where trash trucks used to enter. Had it stayed in its original location, Twins fans leaving the new light rail station would have been confronted by a stream of dump trucks entering and exiting the facility. “That had to change,” Michaud says. To ensure that no one but HERC employees would have to see them, Michaud had the entrances moved to the south side of the building. That’s led to one of the greater compliments a previously noisy, trash-burning facility could ever receive from an executive of the company that owns most of the area’s priciest real estate: “It’s almost entirely innocuous,” says Bill Katter of developer United Properties, who commissioned a study from the Pollution Control Agency that showed that HERC had next to no emissions.

Today, after decades toiling away in obscurity, HERC—and other waste-to-energy projects like it around the world—are back in vogue as cities across the globe contemplate how to stem their flood of trash to landfills. For the first time since construction stalled out 20 years ago, waste-to-energy projects are back on the drawing boards, alongside other renewable energies like solar, wind, hydro and tidal plants.

Burning trash doesn’t at first glance seem the environmentally responsible solution—it normally brings to mind horrifying images of smoldering trash pits in the developing world that leech toxins into the air and poison generations, just as Minneapolis’ NIMBYs feared HERC would in the 1980s. But in the developed world at least, the high-tech and careful monitoring behind waste-to-energy makes it one of the best solutions for cities oppressed by their own trash.

A furnace full of trash may seem incongruent next to a solar panel, but waste-to-energy plants help solve multiple problems at once—powering cities, thereby reducing their dependency on carbon-fuels like coal-fired power plants, while also reducing the number of gasoline-burning trucks hauling waste long distances to already crowded landfills that will decay for centuries. “Waste-to-energy is a very important part of the solid waste infrastructure,” says David Biderman, CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America. “And it seems to be making a comeback.”

Landfills, beyond the damage they do below ground, don’t ever have to account for their air emissions, whereas facilities like HERC are under constant, real-time monitoring which has to be within a strict, federally mandated range. What’s more, according to the EPA, landfills are the third-largest source of ozone-destroying methane in the United States. Collecting, sorting and recycling is the landfill’s opposite: the former prohibitively expensive while the latter is cheap. Waste-incineration has managed to split the difference, so much so that many Northern European countries are now net importers of trash, building so many plants that capacity far outweighs demand. Globalization means many things in many places, but if you’re tossing a styrofoam cup into a trash can in Leeds, England, it means you’re figuratively adding fuel to a fire burning in Oslo, Norway.

The desire to burn trash rather than bury it has led to the construction of the first waste-incineration plant in America in the past 20 years in West Palm Beach, Florida. Proposed plants are now on the drawing boards in Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and a proposed billion-dollar, privately financed plant in a poorer area of Baltimore would be among the largest in the world if it clears the controversy that has so far kept it from being built.

Still, even with the recent rekindling of interest to waste-to-energy plants in this country, the United States still lags far behind Western Europe, where some 450 facilities are online. Not to mention China, which has gone from just a few a decade ago to some 300 today. “They’re doing incredible things in developing capacity,” says Michaels, head of the waste combuster trade organization. That rapid development worldwide, and relatively tepid but promising return to construction stateside, is largely a result of the problem Randy Johnson faced way back when: We’re still producing more trash, have little room to store it and need to come up with better ways to deal with it once it’s thrown out.

Those fundamental problems are leading other cities that signed the 2014 pact with Minneapolis to each tackle waste problem in their own way. San Francisco may ship its trash to an out-of-county landfill, but it still leads the nation in how much it manages to reuse and recycle, while also pioneering initiatives like plastic bag bans. Portland, Oregon, has a new zero-waste goal for all municipal events—at an outdoor festival last year, 1,600 people managed to produce only one full bag of trash. In New York City, where former Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut recycling programs in his first year in office, the sanitation department has just introduced a proposal to force hotels, arenas and large restaurants to separate food waste from regular trash in an effort to divert the more than 1 million tons of organic waste that ends up in landfills every year. And Oslo, Norway, the city that helped make trash a commodity by burning more than it could create, has now taken its zero-waste goals from council rooms to board rooms: In April, it became the world’s first capital city to completely divest its pension portfolio from any investments related to coal.

***

The fact that more people in Minneapolis trace their heritage to Northern Europe, the world’s leader in waste-incineration, than anywhere else in America is not just a happy coincidence. Randy Johnson didn’t have to work hard to get a friendly welcome when he took his European tour, given that Minneapolis has sister cities in both Finland and Sweden.

It’s easy to go overboard on Minneapolis’ and the state at-large’s connection to Germany and Scandinavia. Minnesota, after all, is also home to one of the largest Somali and Hmong populations in the country. Yet the stoic Scandinavian stereotype popularized by Garrison Keillor’s  A Prairie Home Companion, which airs from St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theatre in the Twin Cities, exists because it happens to be true: More than half of the state’s population is still of Northern European descent. Klas Bergman, a Swedish author now living in D.C. and working on a book about the Scandinavian political legacy in Minnesota, links the connection all the way back to the latter half of the 19 th century when, he says, Swedes and Norwegians “came to dominate Minnesota politics for decades.” A combination of overcrowding and famine in their native countries led Scandinavians to flee. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave them somewhere to flee to. And the open prairies and relatively familiar climate made the Midwest and Minnesota, which leads the nation in Scandinavian-Americans and former governors named Knute, their ultimate destination.

Home to the American Swedish Institute and Nordic-inspired restaurants like the North Loop’s own critically acclaimed Bachelor Farmer, for some, Minneapolis still offers a Scandinavian flavor that can’t be found anywhere else in the country. “When I go to Minnesota I feel very much at home,” Bergman says.

That cultural tradition has also fostered a unique political sensibility that gives Minnesota’s politics a special focus on long-term growth and sustainability, both economically and environmentally.

Minnesota leads the country in cooperatives per capita, a legacy carried over from the Danish who settled there, Bergman explains. According to the National Cooperative Bank’s listing of the top 100 co-ops in America, the top two, and three of the top 10, were founded and are still headquartered in the state, including brand name agricultural giant Land O’ Lakes, best known for its butter but also creator of over $14 billion in revenue in 2013. The connections extend even to the military. The Norwegian Reciprocal Troop Exchange, or NORWEX, which dates back to 1974, is the longest-running military exchange partnership between two nations, and is strictly limited to members of the Minnesota National Guard and the Norwegian Home Guard.

That cooperative spirit is a running theme through Minnesota and especially Minneapolis. The fruits of which are often unexpected, and show up in the unlikely visage of large, objectively unattractive facilities like HERC, which, as much as anything in the city or surrounding area, is a result of the state’s seeming willingness to make the sorts of political compromises that may be unpopular in the short term but pay benefits down the road.

Half a century ago, the state of Minnesota faced a problem still beguiling parts of the country today. Whereas states now compete for business by undercutting each other with ever-greater incentives, so too did the myriad cities and counties within Minnesota back then—creating a zero-sum economic competition that hurt the region more than it helped. The state Legislature’s answer to this race to the bottom was to essentially put into motion the sort of plan that goes by one, politically suicidal word today: redistribution. (Or, if you’d prefer to stay true to the state’s Scandinavian roots, you could opt for the synonym with more positive connotations: cooperation.)

As a result, every local government was forced to pitch in nearly half of their commercial tax revenue growth to a collective pool to fuel regional growth and ensure that the region around the Twin Cities didn’t break apart into a world of haves and have nots. The legacy of that shared wealth is evident today in Minneapolis-St. Paul, home to the headquarters of 19  Fortune 500 companies, the city that online real estate listing service Trulia recently named the most affordable in the country, and which a  study this month found was the fastest-growing home to tech jobs nationwide, outpacing even traditional powerhouses like California, New York and Washington state.

Minnesota’s relative familiarity with its Northern European counterparts, however, has only served to highlight the gap between where HERC is today and where its counterparts are in terms of the widespread adoption of waste-incineration. “We’re light years behind countries like Sweden,” says Minneapolis’ former mayor R.T. Rybak, who served from 2002-2014 and counts Stockholm as his second-favorite city.

In the last years of his mayoralty, Rybak watched as the city fought against a plan by the county to increase the number of tons burned per day by HERC by 20 percent. Those against the increase in capacity argued that burning more trash would discourage recycling, despite the fact that many residents of greater Minneapolis, to say nothing of the North Loop itself, have no idea that their trash ends up in HERC’s furnaces. After a half-decade battle, Hennepin finally dropped the issue last year.

“If you want to practice 1970s environmentalism then the HERC is a good target for you,” says County Chairman Opat, who was for the increase in capacity and is still upset that the city didn’t work to approve the measure. “A lot of elected officials in Minneapolis don’t like HERC, yet offer no plausible alternatives to landfilling.”

Indeed, HERC should be playing a much larger role, at least locally, when it comes to energy. Michaud is quick to point out that HERC’s contract with Xcel runs out in 2018. At the moment, he, and the plant, are required to mostly produce electricity. That plan that doesn’t make sense in the winter, when the city is locked in long, brutal cold periods, and the plant could be using steam to heat nearby buildings. To try something new, a few years ago Michaud and the county spent the millions necessary to build out pipes like those currently running into Target Field that could soon connect to all of the new construction being built around HERC.

Expanding HERC to serve more of the surrounding neighborhood goes along nicely with Hennepin County’s ambitious goal of zero waste to landfills by 2030. For that goal, the county’s residents certainly aren’t short on enthusiasm—Michaud says there’s a waiting list for volunteers who go to public events and help educate others on what and how to recycle. That goes double for the county’s recently introduced Fix-it Clinics, where volunteers help locals repair broken small household appliances and electronics. Progress has been steady since the plan was announced, and Michaud says the county is on track to hit its goals for 2015, even as the ultimate goal of zero waste 15 years from now remains distant.

HERC and the North Loop present a vision of what’s possible to any other city willing to subject itself to the temporary pain of an unpopular decision. Building HERC was controversial then. Burning more trash is still controversial today. But doing so responsibly offers a model for what others interested in a healthier community can accomplish in an age when buzzwords about environmental progress are everywhere, while the path to that progress appears narrow.

Even the man who helped start Minneapolis down that path can’t help but notice the change. Commissioner Randy Johnson, whose first trips overseas helped set the stage for HERC’s construction, now says there’s really only one thing he regrets about the facility: that it’s not among his constituents. “I wish I could figure out how to redistrict to take a little slice. My wife would love to live down there.”

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