Prisons have long held a reputation for being resource “black holes.” Incarcerated people fade away into obscurity, most without any true chance at rehabilitation. Yet inmates consume huge amounts of food, and even larger amounts of energy. In 2007, California taxpayers spent over $8 billion on their prison system, more than any other state in the nation. Recidivism rates are not improving, and the state is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Prisons have become an icon for waste and consumption.
One California prison, however, is determined to change the notion that a penal system can only consume resources without reusing them. Avenal State Prison is home to 6,500 inmates. It is located in the dry and somewhat desolate San Joaquin County. Beginning in June of 2000, Avenal State Prison initiated a revolutionary program: food scrap and green material collection. The facility entered into a partnership with San Joaquin Composting, a local and for-profit business that sells compost to the many agricultural wholesalers that exist in the San Joaquin valley. This collaboration between a state-run prison and a private enterprise has generated unbelievable financial, environmental and social benefits.
It goes without saying that 6,500 inmates and close to 1,500 staff eat a lot of food. Twice a day, food scraps and green waste are collected from the six kitchens at Avenal. The scraps are placed into 40-yard roll-off bins. The scraps are then sprinkled with sawdust from the facility’s furniture workshop. The sawdust adds carbon and reduces the pungent odor of rotting eggs, vegetables and spaghetti. Every ten days, San Joaquin Composting picks up the roll-off bins and carts them away for processing in windrows. The final product, a compost called Earthwise, is sold to the agricultural industry and to local landscaping businesses.
The environmental benefits of this green waste compost program are huge. The California Integrated Waste Management Board has a “zero- waste” goal for the state of California. Without a doubt, this goal will only be met by widely implementing programs such as the one in Avenal State Prison, which now diverts more than half of its annual waste. In one month, the facility can divert 11,000 pounds of food waste from a landfill. Once paper waste is added, Avenal diverts about 40 tons of waste each month. Factor in the sawdust and grass clippings that are added to the mix, and another 23 tons are composted each month. Just to put this into perspective, this is about 137,000 pounds, or the weight of 17 fully grown elephants. Each month. As previously noted, 6,500 inmates eat a lot of food.
The green waste program has not only seen environmental benefits. Before the program was implemented in 2000, the prison was spending about $16,000 a month on waste disposal. Now they average about $9,000 each month. Remember that prison expenses are paid for by California taxpayers. If they reduce their operating budget, we all save money. The program is also generating private profit for San Joaquin Composting, the green business that sells the final compost products. The peripheral economic benefit is that the program provides a steady supply of sustainable agricultural products to California’s breadbasket: the central valley. Finally, inmates are involved in this program every step of the way, from collecting the kitchen green waste to gathering the sawdust. These men are learning about recycling and composting, and are being given green jobs skills, something we’ve all heard a lot about recently.
Prisons, the public institutions with arguably the worst rap in our state’s history, are changing. They are becoming involved in the new, green economy. And the social, environmental and financial benefits are both quantifiable and obvious. Times are a changing.