Prison Green: A Philadelphia prison program diverts waste, saves money, and creates some primo compost

Philadelphia’s prisons have instituted an innovative recycling and composting program that is saving money, diverting waste from landfills, producing great compost and drawing national attention.

“We went from zero tons of single-stream recycling to about 310 tons the first year,” says Laura Cassidy, green program coordinator for the city’s prisons, who started the recycling program five years ago. “The cost for all of the prison facilities to dispose rubbish is about a quarter of a million dollars a year after single-stream recycling is extracted,” she says. “I’ve estimated that we could save as much as 70 percent once we implement our composting at all of our facilities.”

The prison program incorporated composting two years ago, and it is unique for its urban setting. That’s part of the reason the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded the city a grant to start it.

“We’d like to see facilities that generate a lot of food waste compost it on-site to reduce the amount of waste going to landfills and to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas generated,” says Mike Giuranna, of the EPA Region III Philadelphia office. Success is measured by the reduction of organic materials (food waste, leaves, wood chips, etc.) going to landfills. The long-term goal is “to compost as much food waste as possible.”


“We are not allowed to compete with private industry,” says Cassidy, so the compost is not for sale. Currently, prison staff members receive compost for free, but there are plans to use it on prison grounds and donate it to community gardens.

The idea for the program began with Louis Giorla, commissioner of the Philadelphia Prison System, who asked Cassidy to explore ways to strengthen sustainability initiatives. Cassidy realized if the prisons recycled properly, what would remain would be food or organic waste.

“I figured that if we implemented a compost program, we could save anywhere from 30 to 70 percent on our solid waste costs, not to mention the impact on the environment,” says Cassidy. “It would save us a significant amount of money.”

But she knew the savings from a compost program could be wiped out by costs of transporting the organic waste to an industrial compost site. “I decided to cut out the middle man and implement the program on-site,” says Cassidy.

The pilot program has been such a success it was featured in the summer 2013 issue of NCIA News,  the quarterly publication of the National Correctional Industries Association. It also received a Waste Watcher Award by the Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania and has inspired plans for similar programs across the country.

story by Kate Campbell