July 31, 2006

South African Hotel Pampers Worms to Cut Waste

By Gordon Bell

CAPE TOWN -- Thousands of earthworms guzzle metric tons of scrap food left over from the tables of the rich and famous at South Africa's plush Mount Nelson hotel, quietly doing their bit to save the planet.

Cape Town's oldest and most famous hotel -- a pink temple to pampering where visiting celebrities are welcomed by doormen in traditional colonial-era pith helmets -- has its own worm farm to help slash waste and, ultimately, tackle climate change.

"This may seem simplistic but it was simply the right thing to do. We're taking responsibility and actually producing something of value out of the waste," Sharon Baharavi, of the five-star Mount Nelson, told Reuters.

The worms are kept out of sight of patrons enjoying the opulent surroundings and gourmet treats, but they bask in pampered luxury in a backroom a short slither from the presidential suite.

Up to 15 cm (nearly 6 inches) long, the worms, commonly known as red wrigglers or tiger worms, are housed in specially-designed crates and fed vegetable leftovers from the kitchen and pricey restaurant tables.

Their fluid excrement, or "worm tea," is carefully harvested and used as a prized fertilizer in the hotel's rolling gardens, where peacocks parade on manicured lawns. Their other by-product, vermicast, is a rich compost.

"They are a specific species. They love food. They love eating decomposing food and they are really good at it. They've got a ferocious appetite," said environmental activist Mary Murphy.


Murphy, one of the drivers of the project, said the potential of such projects was huge.

"If we think really big ... if everybody took their organic waste and processed it through vermiculture or worm farms and we stopped organic waste going to landfill sites, it would have a dramatic impact on climate change."

"It's incredible. They reduce waste by 70 percent (and) there is no smell here," she says, wearing an "I dig worms" T-shirt and surrounded by thousands of the munching critters.

The worms neutralize harmful bacteria, such as Ecoli, and produce beneficial bacteria while increasing the levels of nitrogen and potassium in the soil -- elements that help vegetables grow.

"It is exactly what we need to feed the soil and therefore feed vegetables and feed people," Murphy said.

Organic waste on rubbish dumps releases carbon dioxide and methane, greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, adding to global warming.

"Methane is particularly bad because it has about 20 times greater affinity for heat than carbon dioxide," said environmental scientist Roger Jacques.

The worms prevent this by devouring the waste and turning it into stabilized organic matter.

The Mount Nelson project is the first of its kind in South Africa, and Murphy wants to expand it to the hotel's competitors as well as schools and restaurants.

The hotel is processing about 20 percent of its organic waste through the worm farm but hopes to extend that to 100 percent within the next nine months, as the earthworms reproduce and the farm expands.

Under the right conditions, two worms can become a million in just one year.

The project may also help South Africa work toward a goal of stopping waste going to landfill sites by 2022 by encouraging people to find other ways to deal with refuse.

"Without a doubt, organic waste on landfill sites is what's producing a huge bulk of our methane gas that's contributing significantly to climate change," Murphy said.

"Worms can save the world!" she said.