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County's waste-to-energy plant marks 30 years on Earth Day

5/1/2017 Featured in the Post-Bulletin on April 7, 2017

If you've lived, worked or visited Dodge County or Olmsted County during the past 30 years, your garbage has gone to the Olmsted Waste-to-Energy Facility.

The 1980s were a turning point in how we deal with the waste we produce every day. Before 1987, everything pretty much went to a landfill. If you wanted to recycle, the materials had to be sorted at home into containers (for newspapers, cardboard, aluminum, and glass, by color), and delivered to a recycling center. We had no hazardous waste reuse or disposal programs, and no compost sites.

As more and more disposable, single-serve and fast food items came into the marketplace, landfills were filling up, and no one wanted a landfill in their backyard.

With the county's landfill filling up, and the realization that there were only a few good places left to develop a new one, county officials decided to do something differently. With the guidance of a great citizen advisory committee, and a partnership with Dodge County, county commissioners invested in infrastructure to provide a proper place for all the waste generated in both counties.

The county's integrated solid waste management system was set up to follow the state's new solid waste hierarchy. Today, we've added plastic bottles, steel cans and other items to the list of recyclables, which are collected curbside by every garbage hauler. We no longer need to sort recyclables into the various categories if they are collected by our garbage hauler.

We have a permanent compost site for yard waste, and businesses are finding ways to compost or utilize food waste for animal food. Household recycling and composting have increased from 115 pounds per household in 1989 to 4,120 pounds per household in 2015.

We have a household hazardous waste facility that collects paints, solvents, cleaners, pesticides, household sharps, cell phones, and other toxic items we don't want in the waste stream. And, we can get many of those same usable items for free through the product exchange.

Now, instead of going to a landfill, our garbage is used for fuel. The steam and electricity generated from this process is provided to 38 buildings on the District Energy System, including Mayo Civic Center, the Rochester Art Center, the city-county Government Center, the Rochester Public Library, the Federal Medical Center and other public buildings in Southeast Rochester. Enough energy is produced to power 6,000 homes. The operations continue day and night, 365 days per year and excess electricity is sold to Rochester Public Utilities and Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency.

 

By turning our waste into energy, we save fossil fuels and reduce the amount of landfill space used by about 90 percent.

Without this system, we would have had to build two and a half more landfills to handle the waste produced in Olmsted and Dodge Counties over the last 30 years.

Recently, the county has started reclaiming waste and recovering materials for recycling at the landfill. The old waste is converted into energy at the waste-to-energy facility and the metals are separated to be recycled. This project has extended the life of the landfill to beyond 50 years.

On Saturday, April 22, we'll celebrate 30 years of operation at the facility. Plan to join us from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. for a tour of the facility and see where your garbage goes. As an added perk, we'll have a confidential document shredding event -- bring up to five banker boxes for free shredding and recycling.

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John Helmers is Olmsted County's director of environmental resources.

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