Burning questions about recycling in St. Paul

Taking out the trash
A front-end loader hauls paper at the Rock Tenn recycling facility in St. Paul. The plant recycles half the paper in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Rock Tenn's St. Paul mill recycles half the paper in Minnesota.

Manager Robert Carpenter is standing in an outdoor courtyard at the company's 42 acre recycling plant in St. Paul. Piles of paper of all kinds are stacked up to 30 feet high. A yellow tractor with a giant claw takes huge bites from the piles and dumps them onto a conveyor belt.

After essentially cooking the recycled paper, Rock Tenn turns it into six foot high rolls of paperboard that are shipped out to make dry food box cartons for cereals, cookies, tissue boxes, etc.

Jack Greenshields
Jack Greenshields Senior VP and General Manager Rock Tenn.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

To do all this work, the plant needs lots and lots of very hot steam.

For the past 20-plus years, the factory has been getting steam piped in from a coal fired power plant five miles away. But as part of an emissions reduction plan, Xcel Energy is decommissioning the coal plant and replacing it with a natural gas burner. That means no more steam for Rock Tenn.

The company's Senior Vice President Jack Greenshields says Rock Tenn is the unintended victim of good public policy.

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"A natural gas plant will not run on a 24 hour 7 day week basis, which is what we require for our thermal energy. Nor would it be economical from the point of view of creating thermal energy."

Greenshields says the company currently spends about $1 million a month on energy. Once the Xcel power plant shuts down at the end of August, the factory will run on a combination of fuel oil and natural gas. With the high cost of fuel, Rock Tenn is looking at spending three times as much per month until it builds its own plant.

According to Greenshields, "energy is a very significant cost factor for us. If we can get the energy situation under control then we have a very, very cost effective facility in St. Paul for long term."

Greenshields says the company cares about the environment and says its new power plant would burn renewable fuel sources.

Renewable energy includes biomass fuels like grass, wood, and agricultural residue. But under state law, municipal garbage is also deemed a renewable fuel source. So Rock Tenn is considering burning processed garbage at its plant Refuse Derived Fuel, or RDF.

Nancy Hone
Nancy Hone has organized neighborhood opposition to burning garbage at Rock Tenn.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

And that's got some residents worried.

A group of about a dozen people calling themselves Neighbors Against the Burner, attracted about 150 people to a recent informational forum to air their health and environmental concerns about burning RDF.

Group organizer Nancy Hone says burning garbage is bad and Refuse Derived Fuel is just a fancy term for garbage.

"Go down your alley. Look in garbage cans. All the batteries, the plastics, paints, oils, everything people throw in the trash which produces over 200 toxic chemicals and when combined, you don't know what the new chemical is going to be," Hone says.

Bob Ryan
Bob Ryan is a 26-year employee at the plant. He says the plant needs affordable energy to stay competitive.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

A few Rock Tenn employees attended the forum.

Bob Ryan is a union worker who's been with Rock Tenn for 26 years. He says he's a parent and has concerns about the environment, too. But he says, overall, he supports Rock Tenn installing a biomass or garbage burner.

"We're not talking 1970s technology of light your garbage in your backyard. It's far, far advanced from that. Is it the perfect answer? I don't know. Is it our best economic? We're now in a global paper economy. China's killing us."

Ryan says the paper industry has lost 125,000 jobs over the past five years. Three years ago, Rock Tenn shut down its carton folding service, eliminating about 250 jobs.

St. Paul wants to help Rock Tenn build a power plant so it can be competitive and keep its current workforce of 500 people in the state. During the last legislative session, the city's Port Authority successfully lobbied for a $4 million grant to study fuel sources for the plant.

A power plant for Rock Tenn is several years down the road. Once a fuel source is chosen, any power plant proposal for Rock Tenn faces at least two environmental reviews and numerous hearings before city and state officials. And neighborhood residents will be watching all along starting with a citizen's advisory commission that will start meeting with city and Rock Tenn officials in August.