Notice: Project Board recommends public ownership of Newport facility

On August 27, 2015, Ramsey and Washington counties made a significant move toward improving the environment and achieving their common vision to increase recycling and get the most value out of trash, when a joint board of commissioners recommended that the two county boards take the final steps to purchase the trash processing facility located in Newport from the private owner. 

This move would improve a very successful system: For the past 33 years, the two counties have worked together to build and improve a solid waste management system that protects public health, taxpayers and the environment — and grows jobs here in the East Metro. Working with others, we have developed a system that includes waste reduction, reuse, recycling, composting and energy-recovery to handle most of the trash produced.

A top priority over these three decades has been recycling. From 1980 to 2014, we’ve seen the amount of recycling change from almost zero to a rate of more than 50 percent — over half of the items discarded today are recycled.

A key part of that success has been a privately owned facility located in Newport, which processes about 80 percent of the trash that residents and businesses in the two counties throw away, removing some recyclables and producing a fuel. That fuel is used by Xcel Energy in two power plants to generate electricity — enough electricity to power about 20,000 homes.

When we look at where we have arrived, last year 86 percent of trash was recovered for recycling or energy — that means only 14 percent of trash went to landfills.

Ramsey and Washington counties have a legal requirement and public expectation to plan and oversee increasing recycling, as well as where and how our trash is processed. The counties also have the legal responsibility to manage risks associated with how our trash is handled. This includes economic risks, such as making sure that trash collected in our counties is processed safely and cost-effectively, and that we’re not putting today’s trash processing costs on the backs of future generations.

The contract with the current private owner of the facility expires at the end of 2015 and the counties have an exclusive right to purchase the facility. For more than two years, commissioners of both counties have been studying how the facility in Newport could be used along with new technologies to modernize the East Metro’s trash handling system to make sure it maximizes the use of trash as a resource, to the benefit of taxpayers, households and businesses. To this end, the top priority moving forward is to increase recycling at homes and businesses in order to meet and exceed a 75 percent recycling goal set by the state. And, looking at the next 20 to 30 years, we want to expand on our successes and build a modern trash management system that makes use of new technologies that permit us to get even more value out of trash.

The Newport facility can be the foundation for the future waste management system in the East Metro. The counties envision building on the demonstrated successes of the past and moving to the next generation of recycling, technology and environmental responsibility.

Members of the Ramsey/Washington County Resource Recovery Board, after weighing the pros and cons of purchasing and owning the Newport facility, have determined that public ownership offers numerous benefits, including ensuring that small and mid-sized trash hauling companies can compete and support jobs in the East Metro. Most important, it would provide a foundation for making the changes to derive greater value from trash.

Financial projections show that the costs of owning and operating the Newport facility could save taxpayers each year, and eventually be funded solely by trash disposal fees with no subsidy needed. In fact, studies show public ownership may save millions of dollars annually for county taxpayers, and households and businesses that generate trash.

If the counties did not purchase the facility, it is quite possible that the facility would close. This would have an economic and environmental impact on the East Metro region, including the loss of jobs in Newport and other jobs related to its operation, such as the two power plants in southern Minnesota. A significant environmental loss would occur: A lot of trash would be buried in landfills and we would lose the resource value of that waste. The Project Board did not come to its recommendation about purchasing the facility lightly, but after weighing the risks and benefits, it was evident that owning the facility is not only important to ensure that jobs remain at the facility itself, but also to preserve the trash management system in the East Metro. 

And, while it is an older facility with old technology, there is value in using it as a foundation for the future. There are newer, emerging technologies that we can implement to improve recycling and energy recovery from trash. And, while we are taking this action to keep a successful system intact, we have chosen to advance, rather than retreat or start anew. Acquiring this facility presents the East Metro area with that opportunity.

For more information, please visit our project website at www.MoreValueLessTrash.com or call 651-266-1199.