Zero Waste as a Priority for Parks & Recreation

Helping communities grow through sustainability initiatives

By Daniel Lawson, Sustainability & Quality Control Manager for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation

When the pandemic caused disruptions to programs and services, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation (PPR) found a way to keep one of them afloat. Over seven weeks PPR donated 61 tons of compost and 30 tons of mulch to citizens and urban agriculture projects. This is exactly the type of action a parks and recreation system should be prioritizing.

Supporting the community in its time of need is in the DNA of park and recreation systems, including PPR. Throughout the 20th century, recreation centers provided the first safe structured youth engagement, fed out-of-work adults during the Great Depression, and collected recycled materials to support the war effort during WWII. Almost a century later the Department is still providing those safe spaces, feeding the city and leading a charge in reducing waste. And that last action can be more than maintenance. It can be mission.

Currently, PPR is

  • revamping recycling collections at all 156 recreation centers
  • teaming-up with non-profits to donate uneaten meals from afterschool and camps
  • generating over 5,000 tons of mulch and compost a year at its Organic Recycling Center
  • exploring urban wood use to include lumber and live slab production
  • managing city-wide annual races and celebrations as zero waste events
  • activating the inaugural 12 hyper-local Community Compost Network sites
  • launching a partnership with a local food composter to operate on park land in exchange for food scrap collections from every city recreation center

These zero waste innovations belong with a parks and recreation department. Beyond accessible places of leisure, public parks are a place where a wide audience can be exposed to something new. One of PPR’s stoic mottos is We Help People Grow, and those four simple words say a lot. The Department


But through advances in infrastructure and practice the Department can Help People Grow as a whole. Consider the example set at a rec center that feeds children every day offering a way to compost or donate food. Consider the impact of 30,000 people running in a Marathon that achieves 90% waste diversion. Consider the message given when residents can build something out of wood salvaged right from their local urban forest by their parks department.


A parks and recreation department can provide more than a physical green space. It can provide a social and mental green space that influences its users, young and old, to value that space. To value the natural resources in their backyard, and the planet they inhabit. Every day a neighbor walks their dog through a park, or a student sits down in an afterschool program, the space can be an example of what their community and world can look like.

Author: Daniel Lawson

Daniel Lawson has served as the Sustainability & Quality Control Manager for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation since early 2017. Working out of the Operations Division, his job is to manage innovative projects and initiatives that clean and green the Department's 300+ neighborhood parks, recreation centers, and other assets. Highlights include expanding zero waste practices and infrastructure, delivering the Sustainable Land Care Training series to maintenance staff, and launching the department's first dedicated Storm Water Maintenance Crew. Before this position, Daniel served as the Project Manager for PowerCorpsPHL, an AmeriCorps-funded workforce development program for opportunity youth that performs restoration and maintenance for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and the Philadelphia Water Department.

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