Printer Friendly

Recycling: from survival to sustainability.

In the early 1990s, Illinois Correctional Industries (ICI) made the decision to close the cattle farming operation at Menard Correctional Center (MCC), a 3,600-bed maximum-security institution built in 1878. Located on the Mississippi river bluffs in Chester, Ill., MCC is the largest prison in the Illinois Department of Correction's (IDOC) system. Thirty days after receiving the closure decision notification, the 100-year-old prison farm, with its equipment, 2,000 head of cattle and 125-inmate work crew were virtually extinct. What remained was the land, an old barn with a farm office, some silos, grain bins and a few pieces of equipment.



Implemented in 1976, ICI is a legislatively-mandated program within IDOC, which operates within 19 Illinois prisons. This self-funded program has commercial, business and manufacturing offender work programs which sell to the state, its political units, agencies and other public institutions. The programs are designed to help offender workers reenter society with improved work ethics, self-esteem and a motivation to succeed. Not only are ICI programs self-sufficient, they also provide the offender population with a venue to give back to the citizens of Illinois. Menard Correctional Industries (Menard ICI) is one of the industry locations and is located within MCC, producing various goods including household cleaning supplies and inmate clothing. After the Menard ICI farming operation closed in the early 1990s, other industries at MCC used some of the vehicles and equipment once serviced by the farm mechanics and welders, and a few ICI employees stayed on.


It became difficult to keep the employees busy full-time. One of the correctional industries provided trash service to MCC. A small team of inmate mechanics and welders baled cardboard out of the trash in their free time. The Menard ICI staff--no longer involved in farming and unsure of what future cuts may follow--quickly realized that the Menard ICI operation had to focus on a profitable and sustainable business in order to survive. This situation, along with rising costs at the local landfill, helped spur the idea of pulling the cardboard out of the institution's trash to save money and led Menard ICI to build a recycling program involving materials ranging from cardboard to vegetable oil. MCC and every town within rural Randolph County, Ill., can thank the farm-bred ingenuity of Maintenance Equipment Operator Bill Gross for the ability to recycle.


A Sustainable Partnership

The local hospital, Chester Hospital, was a 20-bed facility and was the only facility for several miles during the early 1990s. The hospital was experiencing waste hauling rate increases due to the acquisition of its local hauler by a larger, national waste hauler. In the spring of 1995, a hospital administrator and Gross discussed the idea of a new partnership between MCC and the hospital to begin a recycling operation. Would the MCC cardboard approach work for them as well? At that time, Chester Hospital had an eight-yard dumpster that was being pulled three times per week at $200 per pull. In the fall of 1997, an official partnership was forged, and MCC was able to reduce the number of pulls from three pulls per week to one pull per week, saving Chester Hospital $400 per week--$20,800 annually.

This relationship between the hospital and the prison caught the attention of an administrator from the Bi-County Health Department and, most important, the chairman of the Randolph County Recycling Board. The conversation began between the department and the board with what the county hoped to do to contain costs. This new relationship started with the county purchasing a heavy-duty recycling trailer for $30,000. As Gross recalls, "The money was out of line." The project was not going to work when Randolph County's entire budget was $16,000 per year at that time. Gross looked over the recycling and proposed constructing a new trailer for Randolph County for $5,000. The initial quote was too low, and ultimately a new trailer was constructed for $7,000, with Randolph County purchasing the construction materials.


The first trailer was used for several years until a smarter and slicker design streamlined the process. During a four-year period, ICI built eight six-bin trailers made from Gross' design. The original trailer was cut in half and welded back together to function like the newer trailers. Construction funding for the trailers came from several places: the city of Steelville, Ill., paid for its own trailer; Randolph County paid for six trailers; and a recycling grant from an Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity grant paid for two trailers.

Creating a Cost-Effective Recycling Program

Taking a trip to MCC's recycling center is a true lesson in recycling. The recycling plant is made from old buildings, trucks and dumpsters. During the first four years, Menard ICI's growing recycling operation baled cardboard outside next to the old barn office. Through the relationships with the cities serviced by Menard ICI, Gross was able to scavenge city scrap yards for materials to fix the balers or trailers. One day while scavenging, Gross noticed an overhead canopy from an old gas station lying in a pile. This became the inspiration for creating a recycling building. The city of Chester donated the canopy, all of the metal from the station, the posts and the I-beams needed to build the original part of the recycling building. Randolph County paid for the concrete and the tin sheeting on the outside, as well as the entire second phase of the building.

Built in 2008, the initial recycling building was a great improvement, and yet the recycling demand by the cities was outpacing Menard ICI's expansion. Steelville's mayor announced at his city's board meeting that they could not afford to not help Menard ICI build a new building at MCC. Steelville has saved $10,000 per year since 2005 by bringing their recyclables to MCC rather than paying to dump it into the landfill. Steelville donated two old dumpsters that became storage areas for the commodities. An old transformer from a demolished staff dormitory and the deck from a semi-truck damaged by a wind storm are part of the loft for the conveyers being built from items found at the prison and used gear box pieces, and items donated from Menard ICI's greatest customer, Southern Recycling. This $120,000 recycling center will cost only $22,000, and is currently being built, little by little.

Two balers that support the entire recycling operation had other purposes prior to use at Menard ICI. One broken-down 20-year-old baler was found at State Surplus--an operation where equipment and furniture are sent when an agency no longer needs them--in 1995. The second baler came from a shuttered tire shredding operation at another facility. A local company donated several totes to Menard for recycling. Rather than tearing them apart, the totes have become part of the recycling operating equipment. Some of the totes are shipped to the facilities to collect waste vegetable oil or the manually baled tin cans from the women's facility in Dwight, Ill. The state's rain barrel supply is made at MCC from the barrels used to ship the ingredients for their green cleaning product line. Once the corn crib is full of plastic bags, they are baled and recycled.

Baling tin cans began as a nuisance-abatement activity. The common practice at the correctional center was to place all empty tin cans into cardboard boxes and throw them away to reduce the amount of wasted space in dumpsters. As part of the cardboard recycling operation, the tin cans had to be removed from the boxes before the boxes could be placed in the baler. The cans were in the way and had to be collected and taken to the landfill. Menard ICI decided to bale the cans just to get rid of them. At the time the operation began, recycling tin wasn't profitable, so Menard ICI waited until there were 125 bales of cans, at which point Gross convinced a metal shop to take them. The metal shop offered $12 per ton if Menard ICI delivered them. Today's market for tin recycling is much different. Menard ICI fields steady calls for the institution's tin cans, which fetched $200 per ton in 2012.

Recycling as a Learning Experience

Menard ICI's recycling efforts have not come without challenges. MCC had very little plastic and almost no glass, so recycling these items presented several challenges. When the community trailers filled with these items began to arrive at MCC, the institution did not know how to work with the material. For the first few months, the inmate workers, led by Gross, took all of the various plastic types, baled them together and called it "mixed plastic." One of the plastic buyers finally informed Gross that the bales were not a very marketable commodity and suggested separating the plastics by type. Today, there are three inmate workers sorting plastic.

Most of the glass from Randolph County originated from bars. Gross initially intended to bale the cardboard from beer containers. As he worked to figure out a way to recycle the glass, Gross stored the beer bottles and containers. This was unusual, since inmates and beer are not supposed to go together. The storage grew to about 3,000 cases until a stern directive was given to quickly identify a solution in the spring of 2011. Gross went to a nearby prison, Vandalia Correctional Center, which had also closed its farm operation. He brought the facility's grain auger back to MCC to crush the glass and load it into a semi-truck. An inmate asked Gross how long he thought this plan would continue. Gross confidently responded "about a year or two." Three weeks later, the auger was completely ruined from the abusive use of the glass. A glass grinder has since been fabricated by Menard ICI. An electric motor was fitted with a hub and four lawn mower blades. The glass is manually dumped into a hopper and the blades break the glass, which then falls into a self-dumping container and then placed into a dump trailer. The trailer carries an average of 20,000 pounds of glass. The glass is then taken to a recycling center in St. Louis once a month.

Menard's biofuel is produced inside an old grain bin, and all of the trucks and tractors in the recycling fleet are powered by the biofuel made onsite. The biodiesel initiative was started by a former ICI chief executive officer (CEO) who had attended a seminar on biofuel and was inspired to purchase two machines to process the waste vegetable oil into fuel. When the CEO asked Gross if he could implement a biodiesel initiative, Gross responded that he needed a diesel pick-up truck to prove that the fuel would actually work.

The biofuel operation made 200 gallons a week from the waste vegetable oil received from 12 other prisons, Chester Mental Health Center and two state fairs. However it wasn't enough fuel to keep up with the 1,200 to 1,500 gallons per month required for ICI's trucking fleet. When IDOC initiated a plan in April of 2012 for the biofuel operation to power an inmate transfer bus, Gross didn't know how to turn them down. The "bio-bus," as it was called, would run on a mix of diesel and biodiesel.

The bio-bus would advertise that biofuel was produced by Menard ICI. This was an opportunity; but it was also a risk. The plan began with one of the newer buses in the transfer fleet. The idea had merit, the press releases were great, and the advertising conveyed a positive message. However, the biofuel converters were old and a fungus began to develop in a fuel tank of one of the recycling trucks. As a result, the "bio-bus"effort ended without any major catastrophe. Biofuel is still produced and used to power the vehicles in the reycling fleet.

Inmate Reentry

Many inmates have come through the operation, beginning with the first group of welders that fashioned the recycling trailers early on. Most of the inmates do not have any marketable skills when they arrive at MCC. Over time, the inmates are taught how to weld, drive a forklift and a tractor, how to be resourceful, and how to turn trash into profit. Some of Menard ICI's best welders knew nothing about welding before they arrived. Upon release, several MCC inmates have obtained employment in the recycling field. One former inmate obtained employment at the Southern Recycling Center as a trash sorter upon release, moving through the ranks to floor manager. He has since moved on and is currently a forklift operator at a concrete molding facility. On several occasions, Gross provides letters of recommendation for the inmates who have a positive attitude and work hard. Many former inmates use Menard ICI as a reference when trying to obtain employment after release.

Since Menard ICI's recycling program began, three other ICI locations have begun recycling operations, and several more ICI locations are in the process of beginning a program--all under Gross's direction. Today, Menard ICI has helped the 2,000-citizen township of Steelville to have single stream curbside pick-up that diverts just less than 1,000 tons of waste from landfills--about one semi-truck of baled waste per week.

"The place has taken a lot of small steps and it did not happen overnight. It just evolved with the community being behind us and we offered what we could to the community," Gross said. "This was not built alone. A little bit at a time isn't a bad thing sometimes."

Table 1. Menard ICI Recycling Program Statistics

Service to:

* 2,000 residents who have curbside pick-ups;

* Seven townships served in Randolph County with a total population of 29,000 residents;

* Five schools;

* Two hospitals;

* Two state parks;

* Two state fairs; and

* One prison with a population of 3,600.


* 3,712.31 tons sent to the landfill in Fiscal Year 1995;

* 19,983.92 tons of waste diverted since Fiscal Year 1998; and

* 1,979.72 tons sent to the landfill in Fiscal Year 2012.


* $24,915 is the largest one-time sale amount by Menard ICI for cardboard;

* $763 is the highest amount paid to Menard ICI for one bale (aluminum cans);

* $20/ton was the lowest paid to Menard ICI for cardboard;

* $170/ton was the highest paid to Menard ICI for cardboard;

* $12/ton was the lowest paid for tin cans delivered 50 miles away from MCC; and

* $200/ton was the highest amount paid for tin cans picked up from MCC.

Jen Aholt is chief executive officer of Illinois Correctional Industries.
COPYRIGHT 2013 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:CT Feature; Illinois Correctional Industries
Author:Aholt, Jen
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Feb 1, 2013
Previous Article:ACA awards recognize exceptional commitment.
Next Article:Greening community corrections: the 10th Floor Project.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters