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"No space for expansion": future Moccasin Landfill closure prompts Cook County initiative to reduce waste

Feb 26, 2024 09:26AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources 

By Laura Durenberger-Grunow - Boreal Community Media - February 26, 2024

The Moccasin Landfill in Superior, Wisconsin, serves a vast region that consists of the North Shore along Lake Superior, the City of Superior, WI, portions of Douglas County, and the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (which includes the Greater Duluth area and Carlton County), and is nearing capacity and is set to close in 2026. This closure presents both a challenge and an opportunity for communities to rethink their approach to waste management and embrace more sustainable solutions.

Reaching Capacity
Imagine 18 semi-trucks filled with trash coming from the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (which includes the waste from the North Shore) and heading to the Moccasin landfill. That's approximately how much trash is added to the landfill each weekday, according to a WDIO News report from May 2023. With the 2026 landfill closure ahead, what does that mean for our waste? It may seem simple to ask why the landfill can't be expanded, or why another one can't be assigned, but is that even a possibility?

Boreal Community Media spoke with Natalie Lavenstein, an AmeriCorps Member and Sustainability Project Coordinator with the UMN Extension Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships program, who is helping to implement the newly created Northeast
Communities Recycling & Composting Collaborative with Cook and Lake Counties, and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Lavenstein shared that the Moccasin Landfill was created in the 1970s and has already gone through several expansions. At this point, there is no more room to expand. In terms of finding another landfill, she mentioned that "While establishing a new landfill is technically possible, it is not necessarily the most practical or sustainable solution to address waste management needs in the long term."

Lavenstein gave the following reasons why a new landfill isn't necessarily the most viable option:

Why can't another landfill be created? 
  • Regulatory hurdles: Obtaining permits from local, state, and federal agencies is lengthy and costly. 
  • Environmental impact: Landfills harm habitats, emit methane, and contaminate soil and water. 
  • Community opposition: Residents oppose landfill sites due to property value, health, and environmental concerns. 
  • Limited lifespan: New landfills eventually fill up and require long-term closure and ongoing maintenance.

Northeast Communities Recycling & Composting Collaborative
The Collaborative supports a plan that has been two years in the making, called the Northeast Regional Solid Waste Management Plan, created by regional solid waste officers. The plan has laid out "Specific objectives and goals emphasizing waste reduction and a strategic elevation of recycling and composting initiatives," according to Lavenstein. "Achieving these goals goes beyond merely reducing waste; it holds the potential to yield extensive benefits for the community," she said. Some of these benefits include not only environmental but also social and economic. 

Waste reduction
The main goal of the Northeast Regional Solid Waste Management Plan is waste reduction. To help create an action plan, the Northeast Communities Recycling & Composting Collaborative has issued a survey and plans to host a variety of community-tailored meetings along the North Shore in February. 

According to Lavenstein, the goal of the survey is "To gather residents' perspectives and practices regarding recycling and composting." 

In terms of the meetings, community members "Can expect an engaging and interactive experience focused on discussing the closure of the landfill and exploring alternative solutions for waste management (including overall waste reduction, recycling, and composting). Attendees will learn about current waste amounts and projections in their community, and discuss action planning and next steps for implementation," she said.

THE SURVEY IS NOW CLOSED. To take the survey, and learn more about the meetings, visit:

***March 28, 2024 Update: There are no additional meetings scheduled. To read a recap of the Grand Marais community meeting, click here.****

Upcoming meetings (food will be served. You can RSVP at the end of the survey):

One composting project is already planned for spring. Thanks to a grant received by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MCPA), composting equipment and a trailer have been purchased and will be leased to a farm near Grand Marias. Lavenstein shared that "Food scraps will be collected from local businesses and schools and then delivered to the participating farm. Yard waste will be collected from the community and the farm itself." 

For local residents, some may be left wondering how North Shore Waste's 
County Board supported Cook County Transfer Station Facility, which includes plans for a composting system, fits into all this. Boreal Community Media spoke with Dustin Hanson, co-owner of North Shore Waste, who said that while North Shore Waste is in full support of the Northeast Communities Recycling & Composting Collaborative, they aren't officially involved.

"We all have the same goal," he said. "We are working parallel with them to reduce waste in the community because waste reduction reduces what North Shore Waste has to haul (currently) down to Duluth, and eventually from the Cook County Transfer Station Facility. It's also better for the environment, and for the pocketbooks of community members we service," he added.

Another focus of the Northeast Regional Solid Waste Management Plan is increased recycling. Unlike the composting initiative, which has a pilot program in place to start this spring, the recycling projects are still being determined from survey results and community meetings. 

But how does an increase in recycling impact the Cook County Recycling Station? Boreal Community Media spoke with Tim Nelson, Cook County Land Services Director regarding the topic. 

Like North Shore Waste, the 
Cook County Land Services Department "Is not officially involved with the Northeast Communities Recycling & Composting Collaborative," Nelson said. "But, are happy to listen to any input that might be presented," he added. 

Some potential concerns with an increase in recycling include staffing, the size of the current processing facility, and limitations as to what can be delivered to material processors. "S
ince we are such a small county with regards to population and amount of recyclable materials produced, we are limited in what we can and cannot bring to our intermediate material broker, who gathers up materials from a variety of counties and cities around the region to find the best ultimate final location to send those materials to be processed into other products.  Many of the end markets are right here in Minnesota, but others are located in other States, so transportation is always a consideration," he said.

Nelson also brought up the newly adopted Solid Waste Management Plan that was created in partnership with other counties in NE Minnesota last year. "Through that process alternatives were evaluated for the disposition of all the different types of waste materials."

What's next?
Community members are encouraged to participate in the survey, and if possible, the community meetings, to share ideas, ask questions, and voice concerns about the landfill closure. Lavenstein mentioned that community members' "I
nsights are crucial in shaping the future plans for waste reduction, composting, and recycling in our region. By participating, they contribute to a vision that genuinely reflects the needs and aspirations of our community." 

***March 28, 2024 Update: There are no additional meetings scheduled. To read a recap of the Grand Marais community meeting, click here.

THE SURVEY IS NOW CLOSED. To take the survey or RSVP for a meeting, visit:

Learn more via the PDF file below. 
Boreal Ship Spotter - larger view here