March 29, 2021

Lowering Prison Costs with Sustainable Food Waste Management

prison food

Correctional facilities have a duty to provide inmates with a secure and safe living environment. However, for the taxpayers footing the bill for correctional facilities nationwide, cost-effective operation should also be prioritized. A 2015 survey from the Vera Institute of Justice found that states spending on prison systems varied widely, ranging from $65 million in North Dakota to more than $8 billion in California. Total prison costs per inmate averaged a staggering $33,274.

There are many critical areas of prison spending that cannot be compromised, from competitive salaries for employees to adequate healthcare and programming. Facility operational expenditures, however, provide a prime target for reducing prison costs. For example, waste disposal is an all-too-often unaddressed operating expense that has significant impact on facility costs, security, and safety. Diverting waste, particularly the food waste that can amount to nearly one-third of all waste created at correctional facilities, can drive down prisons’ operational costs.

Below we’ll explain how becoming “green” can help prisons lower their operational costs, and address the challenge presented by some of the food waste solutions in use at correctional facilities today.

The scope of prisons’ food waste problem

Data compiled by CalRecycle, California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, suggests that food waste generation at correctional facilities averages between 0.5 pounds per inmate per day to as much as 1.2 pounds per inmate per day, depending on the type of facility and its feeding program. In other words, a facility housing 4,000 inmates can generate more than a ton of food waste each day. Now consider that there are roughly 2.3 million people in correctional facilities nationwide and it’s possible to get a sense of the vast scope of this problem. 

This waste is typically sent to landfills, where it begins the aerobic process of decomposition that will generate the gas methane, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Still, even if not accounting for this food waste’s impact on global warming, correctional facilities have a duty to address the operational cost impact of transporting excess food waste. 

In 2020, the average cost to send one ton of municipal solid waste to the landfill was about $53. That’s $53 in savings each day that can be captured by diverting waste. What’s more, most correctional facilities are located in remote areas, which further adds to the transportation costs of waste disposal. (To calculate those costs, EPA provides a useful waste removal cost estimation sheet here.)

Strategies for diverting food waste

Many correctional facilities are making strides in reducing the costs of waste disposal. However, these programs among green prisons are often limited to focus on recycling strategies and strategic purchasing that minimizes the materials coming in to ultimately be wasted. 

There are exceptions. Vermont’s correctional facilities, for example, compost nearly 11,000 pounds of food scraps each week, keeping 572,000 pounds of food waste out of landfills annually. Inmates are charged with separating food waste before sending these items to external compost facilities that provide composted material to farms and gardens throughout the state.

However, this solution points to one more unique cause for concern that prisons face when it comes to transporting waste: security. Transporting food waste off-site opens prisons to additional risks of security breaches. At many such facilities, vehicles are unable to enter the prison. In those cases, materials must be delivered and waste collected using carts or bins and delivered to areas outside the prison walls. Limiting these interactions is a critical risk reduction strategy. 

Other facilities are using composted materials on-site in prison gardens. In 2018, partners in Washington state’s Sustainability in Prisons Project grew more than 246,700 pounds of food for use in prison kitchens and food pantries. However, not all aspiring green prisons have this option due to the challenge of securing permitting for correctional composting operations. The state’s Department of Correction’s composting programs cannot market or sell their products, providing a level of variation and unpredictability in harvests and food use that can make food purchasing challenging. 

As a result of these challenges, more facilities are examining a range of on-site food waste disposal solutions. On-site food waste disposal can range from in-house composting to a range of equipment types that break down organic matter. Solutions such as on-site aerobic biodigesters use microorganisms and enzymes to break down organic material enough that the resulting waste can be discharged directly into the wastewater system.

Ongoing operation from on-site solutions

These on-site solutions are particularly valuable in that they make for a long-term, sustainable approach to reducing prison costs. With little maintenance required, most of these systems can run with little disruption despite variations in prison occupancy or other outside disruptions. 

2020 made a strong case for the need for on-site systems. As the experts with GreenPrisons point out, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed most correctional facilities to operate on some kind of locked down status. This is preventing many inmate crews from continuing gardening, recycling and other typical waste reduction strategies that involve moving waste or waste byproducts off-site.  

Securing on-site food waste solutions

It is also important to recognize that there are variations among on-site food waste solutions. Few biodigesters are built with correctional facilities in mind. The Power Knot LFC biodigester security package provides six tamper-resistant features developed with correctional systems in mind. This includes several unique locking features, the use of safety screws that cannot be removed without special tools, and mounting brackets that prevent the biodigester from being moved. 

While many correctional facilities are making strides in reducing this costly operating factor, there is more than can be done to streamline food waste disposal. To discover how quickly your facility can recoup your investment in a secure biodigester, contact Power Knot today.

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