By Dana Simas, Public Information Officer

Since April 2011, recycling at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD) in San Diego has been a growing slimy endeavor that greatly reduces food-waste disposal.

Food waste is spread for the worms to turn to compost

In a single month, the prison uses a few million worms in the Rock Mountain Worm Ranch to compost waste that would otherwise end up in the trash or garbage disposal.

The innovative composting program, and other concerted recycling efforts, has helped the prison reduce waste from more than 3,000 tons per year to 1,200 tons. The waste reduction has decreased the number of days for required trash pick-up service from seven to five, providing a cost savings for the institution.

Ross Lee, the Recycling Manager and Hazardous Materials Specialist at RJD started the vermiculture project in 2011 with approximately 120,000 worms and a couple rows of compost. Since then, he has grown the project to 12 rows with at least 4 million worms composting more than 3.3 tons of food waste in a single month.

After meals, the remaining food is dumped into recycled peanut butter and egg buckets which typically hold about 30 pounds of food waste each. The buckets are then transported on pallets to the on-site worm ranch and spread over one of 12 rows of worms, food waste, and ground cardboard which help the rows maintain structure.

The recycling effort doesn’t stop there. Using a recycled culinary sink, inmate workers wash out the buckets and return them to the kitchens to be filled with waste again. Any containers that can’t be reused are crushed and sent for plastic recycling.

The R.J. Donovan worm ranch is saving the institution money by reducing waste-disposal costs.

Lee has bigger plans for the ranch. He is currently working on building equipment that can separate the worms from the worm droppings called “castings,” which is a good source of fertilizer. Once able to harvest the fertilizer, Lee plans on creating an inmate garden at the institution’s Minimum Support Facility.

“Creating and taking on this endeavor is a lot of work,” Lee said. “But it’s a great program and I’m excited about the potential expansion.”

A few years ago, Ross saw how much food waste was being dumped into the trash, so he looked for a practical way to divert it. During his search he visited local vermicomposters and gathered ideas to bring back to the institution. After winding his way through the bureaucratic process for the proper permits he was finally able to get approval for the project from the local solid waste enforcement agency.

While the solid food waste is diverted to the worm ranch, Lee has also organized waste management for bakery goods and cooking grease. More than 100 tons of bakery waste at the institution is diverted each year and picked up by a private company free-of-charge to be used as a component of cattle feed. The company also pumps cooking grease from the provided receptacles free-of-charge to be used as bio-fuel.

Lee hopes to spread this program to other institutions and has offered local county correctional facilities assistance in creating their own vermiculture program.