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Repercussions of Prison Population Growth
By Robert Kravitz, President AlturaSolutions
Published: 07/16/2018

Inmates 3 It’s been widely reported that the prison population in the U.S. has been growing steadily over the past forty years. During that time, the U.S. has been “honored” with having the largest number of people incarcerated than any other country in the world, even though our country accounts for just five percent of the total global population. A report issued in 2014, which has kept tabs of this population growth, estimates that in 1973, there were only about 200,000 adults in U.S. prisons. By 2010, that had jumped to 2.2 million.

There has also been considerable news coverage about what it costs to house those incarcerated. Costs include everything from food and housing, supplies of all kinds, to medical care. These costs have jumped tremendously as well. It is estimated that the U.S. taxpayer now pays more than $80 billion per year to keep U.S. correctional facilities open and running. But here is something else we should know that does not appear to be getting the news coverage it deserves.

U.S. prisons generate vast amounts of waste. About one million meals a day are prepared for the inmates, producing over 200,000 tons of food waste each year. Plus, let’s not forget, all the paper and plastic utensils used in prisons. While some of these items are recycled, and even some of the food waste is used as mulch, most of the waste is merely placed into large trash bags, tossed into a dumpster, where it is miraculously taken away and never seen again.

But there's more. It looks like we have another waste issue to discuss. Those trash bags and liners are not recyclable nor are they made from recycled materials. The most commonly used trash liners/trash bags in the U.S. are referred to as polyethylene trash bags. These bags are made from petroleum byproducts and other non-renewable ingredients.

And these trash bags do not break down when tossed into landfills. Believe it or not, several studies show it can take as many as 500 years for those polyethylene trash bags to decay in landfills.

You might ask, are there trash bags made from recycled materials and if so, why are we not using these? Well, the answer to the first part of the question is yes, there are trash liners and plastic trash bags made from recycled materials. But they are not used that much, especially in commercial facilities, because they do not hold up that well.

This is why the most recent version of LEED does not require the use of recycled and recyclable trash liners. So many consumers complained about the recycled products, they simply decided the technology had not advanced sufficiently to require their use.

So, if 200,000 tons of food waste are generated in U.S. prisons, we can comfortably assume that millions of pounds of trash liners are also used in correctional facilities each year and end up in landfills. Not only is this environmentally harmful, it's costly. While liners and plastic trash bags are certainly not the costliest of cleaning-related supplies, used on this scale, their cost is significant.

What can we do about reducing the number of plastic liners/bags used in correctional facilities that can help reduce their impact on the environment as well as save correctional facilities a bundle? One step we can take is to be much more selective as to how plastic liners/bags are used.

Some of Google offices, for instance, now separate dry trash from "wet" trash. Dry trash, such as paper products, containers, plastic utensils, etc., do not need to be placed in plastic trash bags so no trash liners are used. Food items, on the other hand, are placed in trash liners. This is considered wet trash. While Google has not issued a final report, it is estimated this has helped them reduce the use of trash liners by more than 30 percent, if not more.

Another possibility is to make sure we use plastic trash liners efficiently. “Efficiently” is the key word here. As plastic trash bags are used, the volume of trash in the bag soon reaches the top. At this point, the bag is typically sealed and deposited in a dumpster.

But trash is not the only thing in that bag. It is also filled with air.

At least one manufacturer in the professional cleaning industry, Kaivac, has introduced a trash compacting system that vacuums out that air, reducing trash volume by about one-half. While this system may not necessarily reduce the number of liners used in a correctional facility, with the liners constricted, the trash bag does not “rebound” to its original size. This means the liner may be able to hold more trash, plus now that it is constricted, it frees up space in dumpsters and reduces the number of trips to the dumpster.

Most analysts believe the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. will continue to grow. Not only does this mean administrator’s must deal with how to house and feed more inmates, but we also must consider the impact this growth will have on the environment, including the number of liners used to bag trash.

Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the correctional industry.


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