Prison Labor To Thank For Ohio Stadium Sustainability

Sep 22, 2016

As one of the largest stadiums in the country, Ohio Stadium has also managed to become one of the greenest. After each Buckeye home game, up to 95 percent of all stadium garbage is recycled or composted.

Turns out that’s only achievable through one surprising advantage: prison labor. 

It’s game day at Ohio Stadium. The band warms up in the wings while students chant and wear scarlet body paint.

The Buckeyes are playing Tulsa, and most everyone has their eyes on the field except Tony Gillund, the manager of sustainability at the Ohio State University. For Gillund, today's game is about the garbage and he's playing defense.

"Two hours before kickoff, the gates open and fans can come inside, approximately at that same time we get in here to do what we have to do," says Gillund.

Each home game brings in more than 100,000 people who generate up to 14 tons of garbage. Sorting and recycling that much waste is a big challenge, so Tony hires a team of high school students to watch over the recycling and compost bins.

One of these workers is 17-year-old Carrie Homhuane. She calls this position “goalie”— a soccer analogy, but we’ll go with it. When people come over to throw away their garbage, Homhuane informs them if it goes in the bin for recycling or the compost.

Homhuane says, at a football game, most people aren’t thinking about recycling so she winds up picking through a lot of garbage to correct their mistakes. She admits she's had some trash thrown on her head. 

Carrie Homhuane is one of dozens of high schoolers hired to watch over the compost and recycling bins at OSU football games.
Credit Esther Honig / WOSU

"When I'm going through [the garbage] some people just don't see me in the trash cans and they just drop it in," Homhuane said. 

Go zero waste or go home

For years, the majority of this waste wound up in the landfill, but in 2011, OSU began an effort to get the stadium to zero waste. They set up bins for collecting compost and hauled their recycling to Rumpke Waste and Recycling, but they quickly hit a wall.

Johnathan Kissell, a spokesperson for Rumpke, says their automated facility is designed to sort and process household recyclables, not thousands of nacho trays and hotdog wrappers that can sometimes contain leftover food.

Kissell says they had to stop accepting the trash from the stadium — it was too challenging and not very effective. Another issue says Tony Gillund is that a lot of their recyclables aren't profitable.

"What we’re calling recyclable is not necessarily something [Rumpke] wants," says Gillund.

Due to the drop in the price of petroleum, products like plastic wrap, plastic cups and trays aren't worth very much once they're recycled.

All of this meant that if the Ohio Stadium wanted to reach zero waste they’d have to develop some sort of an alternative.

An unexpected team is formed

Next to a mountain of garbage about 30 inmates sort through bags of plastic bottles and cardboard by hand.

Inmates Earnest McCumber and sort through plastic bottles; they remove the caps and sort the plastics by color.
Credit Esther Honig

After each Buckeye home game, about 20,000 pounds of trash is trucked here, to the Southeastern Correctional Complex. Where inmates like Earnest McCumber do all the sorting that a recycling center would typically perform.

"They’re separating the plastic, clear plastic, green plastic. Aluminum cans and paper and then they put it in bigger bins and then we’ll make it into bails," explains Earnest.

like many prisons, the Southeastern Correctional Complex already sorts and recycles their own garbage, so taking on the stadium’s trash was an easy adjustment.

Earnest says it’s a job most the guys here enjoy.

"I like the exercise, I like getting out. It’s a freedom," he says.

Inmates here earn about 11 cents an hour, and it will take about 24 hours to finish the job. The prison sells the recycled materials and keep the profits — about $900 dollars a game — to fund other job training programs.

It’s a win for OSU, which saves money on labor and also fees they don’t have to pay hauling the garbage to the dump.

Dale Dewey oversees the prison program and says that's not the only advantage.

Unlike Rumpke, the prison doesn’t depend on the revenue, so they're willing to process low-grade plastics that earn little to nothing on the commodities market. And Dewey says, the meticulous sorting that's done by hand just can’t be done by machines.

"Inmate labor has made this process what it is," he says.

But there are some drawbacks. The prison can’t take trash from tailgate parties. Dewey says it could contain contraband. Things like a set of serving tongs could be fashioned into a weapon.

Dewey says that since the stadium started selling beer this year, the additional aluminum cans mean extra revenue for the prison.

Next time you crack open a cold one on game day, there's a good chance that can will pass through the hands of an inmate.