Where Does Our Garbage Go?

by Dylan Morrissette, 6th grade

Because my mom writes “Sustainable We,” and because my sister was an intern with Cool Planet Minnesota about climate change, I know how much work we have to do to help keep our planet healthy. Right now it is pretty sick — pollution in the air, ground, water. And we are the ones who have to live with it as it gets worse — storms, illness, lack of resources that we now take for granted (like bees who help make one-third of our food!)

What I’m interested in finding out is… where does our garbage go in Minneapolis? What can we make out of our waste food, wood, metal, plastics to make things better?

This is what I’ve learned.

Why care about garbage?

1. Garbage makes kids (and others) sick

Do you know someone who has asthma? About 7 million kids have it, making it hard for them to breathe. It can be affected by many things, including air pollution — which comes from our garbage, our buildings, our cars. Asthma is one of the main reasons kids end up in the hospital. Learn more here.

In one year, 6-13% of all people who died in our Minneapolis area, and 2-5% of all local residents who visited the hospital or emergency room for heart and lung problems, did so because of the pollution we put into our air and our dirt. Children with asthma, and older people, especially have problems with this. Learn more here.

2. Every person throws out about 4.5 pounds of garbage every day

We are very wasteful, every day. Especially in the United States. We tend not to even think about all the things we buy but don’t really need. If we started thinking about what we buy before we do, some experts think we could reduce almost half of the garbage we produce. And, if we bought less of certain wasteful products, companies would stop making them.

  • The average American discards 4.5 pounds of garbage every day (EPA Facts and Figures).
  • Products and packaging make up 71% of the solid garbage we throw out in the U.S., with packaging accounting for 30%.
  • In North America, we throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.
  • Plastic represents at least 60 percent of the garbage in the ocean. The International Coastal Cleanup report says the most common items found onshore and underwater include: cigarettes, food wrappers, plastic bags, and plastic beverage bottles. Many plastic bags end up in storm drains from our streets and get sent into rivers, lakes and oceans. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than one-third of sea birds have eaten plastic, which can kill them.
  • Use of paper has grown 400 percent in the last 40 years. Nearly 4 billion trees (35%!) of the total cut around the world are used in paper industries. Newspapers, office paper, and paper products coated with wax — like many paper cups and plates — make up a huge part of our garbage. Now that is waste!

This chart from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gives an idea of where our garbage comes from.

Garbage by Type (EPA)


3. The problem is growing as we grow

Where we live, there are good policies in place to help us throw less into the garbage can. But Hennepin County, and the City of Minneapolis, want almost half of our garbage to be recycled or re-used or composted (turned into usable dirt). Why?

  • We live in the most crowded area of Minnesota. Lots of garbage and cars means lots of pollution. We have to work even harder to live here in a healthy way. One of the easiest things we can do is start to reduce the amount of garbage we use.
  • It is hard to take care of all that garbage — and our population is growing. Not everyone has a HERC facility. What goes into landfills comes into the air as methane gas and other toxins and floats into our lungs. It got very foggy in Minneapolis and all over in Minnesota when there were Canadian wildfires in 2015. That’s because air travels everywhere — and doesn’t simply disappear into outer space! So what happened up in Canada, where there were ten times as many forests burning in 2015 as usual because of climate change — affects people everywhere.
  • Perhaps the most important reason the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wants us to reduce buying and throwing things away is this: do you know how much work goes into making the packaging and the products at huge companies, who usually use coal and release tons of greenhouse gases into the air?

How We “Get Rid” of Garbage

In Minneapolis, garbage is sent to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) in downtown Minneapolis, which burns 365,000 tons of garbage a year and turns it into electricity that is sold to Xcel Energy.

The steam from the burn is used to power downtown Minneapolis and Target Field. The solid parts that are left over becomes ash that is sent to a landfill. Some of the steam is condensed into water that goes back into the HERC boiler. And the pollutants that go into the air are treated to reduce the bad chemicals that we would end up breathing.

The HERC system has won an award for its environmentally smart practices. You can watch a video about it here:

Does that mean throwing everything in the garbage is good?

No. Where we live, there are good policies in place to take care of some of our garbage. But we produce more than we should — and it gets harder to take care of it. And some of it shouldn’t be going into the trash at all, but into recycling or composting, or re-used and turned into something else.

If we started thinking about what we buy before we do, some experts think we could reduce almost half of the garbage we produce.

Do NOT throw this in your trash

There are some things that should never go into the regular garbage because they include dangerous materials. Our leftover computers, certain light bulbs, batteries, paints, pesticides, medicines and other things contain toxic parts and chemicals that we don’t want to burn or go into our air.

There is a special collection place in Brooklyn Park and Bloomington that takes those items. And there are special collection days when you can bring them to a nearby facility. Or, especially for computers and other electronics, places like Tech Dump will take them and often turn them into something else instead.

How can we help our city reduce pollution in our air and water?

  • Recycle. Throw out plastics, cardboard, glass, aluminum foil, and other recycling items in special bins instead of the garbage. Hennepin County helps schools, apartments, homes, events, and businesses set that up.
  • Learn about composting. Turn your wasted food, and leaves and other yard waste, into very useful dirt. Encourage our families to go to restaurants that use composting. Here are some of them.
  • Drive less. Walk, bike, carpool, use the bus. Cars are a major source of air pollution, and we have to stop the fact that more cars are on the streets every day. Minneapolis is doing a good job making it easier for bikers to get around safely.
  • Use less electricity. We have heard how important it is to turn out the lights when we leave a room. Try not to use air-conditioning, but use a fan (and only when you are in the room, it doesn’t cool a space but merely blow air against your skin to cool you off).
  • Use solar power. Encourage your family to participate in a Community Solar Garden (CSG). The chemicals we put into the air creating electricity out of coal is one of the biggest sources of pollution. That’s why I’m excited that Minnesota is creating new ways to use solar power, which is much better for the environment.
  • Find more ideas here.

Cool Resources

Re-Use Ideas

Did you know that with just newspaper, rolled up paper bags and special glue I made a wolf head, thanks to the May Day workshops put on by The Heart of the Beast? I’ve also been a spider and a Chinese dragon. My sister has been a bird with flapping wings and a flower with petals made from wire and paper.

People have made hundreds of costumes for the May Day parade out of a lot of would-be garbage, using cardboard, newspapers, inner tubes, fabric pieces, leftover paint, tin foil, yarn, wood, flour, etc.

At Whittier International Elementary School, I participated in the Art Buddies program, where artists come in to help students make costumes for a parade around the school. We use toilet paper rolls, tin foil, cardboard, scraps of fabric, yarn. One year I was a griffin from Harry Potter (which is a lion and eagle combined).

Because I am interested in finding interesting ways to reuse garbage, I’ve started to collect ideas on Pinterest of the cool things people have done with leftovers. Find it here.

Other Great Resources

Cool Resources