‘Tour de Trash’ shows Hopkins a day in the life of garbage

by Gabby Landsverk, Sun Sailor Newspapers

For the first time, a group of intrepid Hopkins residents were given a backstage pass Aug. 3 to the important (and pungent) process of municipal waste management. Dubbed the “Tour de Trash,” the garbage trek traced the city’s process of collecting, transporting and processing the tons of trash thrown away by residents each month.

The inaugural Hopkins Tour de Trash gave curious residents a look at the city’s solid waste processing. Hopkins residents braved the stench of garbage in 99-degree weather to get a new perspective on household waste.  (Sun Sailor staff photo by Gabby Landsverk)
The inaugural Hopkins Tour de Trash gave curious residents a look at the city’s solid waste processing. Hopkins residents braved the stench of garbage in 99-degree weather to get a new perspective on household waste. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Gabby Landsverk)

The mastermind behind the offal excursion is Pam Hove, solid waste coordinator for Hopkins. Hove toured a recycling facility through a Hennepin County recycling and composting class, and gained a new perspective on the necessary but little-understood processes of waste management.
“I thought it was really amazing, really exciting to see that full cycle,” she said. “It really made things click for me, that that’s why we do things a certain way, when I saw the whole process.”

Hove thought others might benefit from that knowledge as well. While recent changes to the recycling center prohibit guests from touring the facilities close-up, Hove discovered that it was possible to get a firsthand look at the inside of Hennepin County waste management facilities where the majority of Hopkins refuse is processed.

Hove was able to get transportation funding from the county to hire a bus that brought residents each step of the way through the journey of the city’s garbage.

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The first stop in the tour was the Brooklyn Park Transfer Station. About 176.61 tons of garbage are brought here each month from Hopkins residents, Hove said, an average of 118 pounds per person.

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Darwin Schulz, site supervisor at the facility, said it was built and operated by the county in order to better control the environmental impact of local garbage.
“The county wanted to have control over how solid waste was being handled and get away from landfills as much as possible,” he said.

He added that the facility manages between 120,000 and 160,000 tons of trash every year.

The second, and final, stage of the journey is the Hennepin County Energy Recovery Center, known as the HERC.

HERC burner
HERC burner

There, the waste is dumped into boilers lined with water-filled tubes and burned, producing steam, which then turns a turbine and produces electricity. About one-fourth of the waste brought to the HERC comes from surrounding suburbs, with a majority generated by Minneapolis businesses and residents. In total, the trash burned provides enough energy to power 25,000 homes, according to county statistics.

Our Hennepin Co guide, Angela, pointing out the pollution control equipment on HERC
Our Hennepin Co guide, Angela, pointing out the pollution control equipment on HERC

Hove said few people are aware of what a great resource the HERC is to the community.
“I think that most residents don’t know about the HERC and that our garbage goes there,” Hove said. “I think it’s really exciting and something we should be proud of. We’re lucky to have it here in the metro.”
She added that while there are private waste management companies in the metro, the county offers a process with fewer environment impacts.
“I think it’s important to stick with Hennepin County because of the waste-to-energy process,” Hove said. “Our trash is burned for energy versus being put in a landfill.”
Trash sent to the HERC is reduced to ash, cutting the amount of waste brought to a landfill by 90 percent.
Before trash makes it to the HERC, however, someone has to gather that garbage from across Hopkins and bring it to the transfer station.

The boots on the ground in the waste management process belong to Terry Haigh, refuse engineer, who has been the driver of the city’s garbage truck for nearly 10 years.
Haigh single-handedly collects all the trash for the city’s single-family and duplex residences, a total of more than 3,000 cans of garbage per week.
He said when most people think of “garbage men,” they imagine a few guys riding on the back of the truck emptying the cans by hand, which he said is no longer the case.
“We don’t do it the old-fashioned way anymore. It’s all automated so, in theory, I never have to leave the truck,” Haigh said.
Sometimes, however, a errant piece of trash that can’t be processed by the city, such as a television, microwave or rubber tire, finds its way into the truck, forcing Haigh to remove it by hand.

“If there’s something in there that shouldn’t be, I have to shut everything down, climb up and get it out because if I bring it to the transfer center, it costs us (the city) big money,” Haigh said, adding that Hopkins residents generally do a good job of keeping their trash free from debris. “I haven’t had to climb up and get a TV out of there in a while. People know what they can and can’t throw away and are better educated now.”
Once in a while, some very strange objects end up in the back of Haigh’s truck, however,
“One day, it was just after dawn, something started clogging up the truck,” Haigh recalled. “I climbed back there and was face-to-face with a dead deer staring back at me. It wasn’t a small one, either.”

Aside from disposing of items properly, Haigh added that residents can help facilitate the trash pickup process by making sure they leave enough space for the garbage truck, both between their trash and recycling bins and between the bins and other objects such as a garage or car.
“A lot of times, people never see me because they’re at work when I do the pickup, but I do wish they’d leave me more room,” Haigh said. “Sometimes people are very creative about where they put their trash cans.”
Hove said she thought the first Tour de Trash was a huge success, potentially planting the seeds for a sequel next year.
“The people who chose to come seemed really interested, really engaged and learned a lot,” Hove said,
She may, however, try to schedule a less-sweltering day for future treks since, no matter how cool waste management is, nobody likes hanging out with hot garbage.

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Hove said she hopes the tour will educate people on the waste cycle to help them make better decisions about recycling, composting and other environmentally-friendly practices, as well as understand why the city has certain regulations to keep the waste management process running smoothly.
“It’s important for people to have the full picture of what happens to their trash,” Hove said.

Contact Gabby Landsverk at [email protected]