September 21, 2008

Earthworms: Gross, but They Help the Planet

By Jake Griffin

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Ashley Summers' lunch leftovers feed the hungry.

Hundreds of worms devour apple cores, banana peels, carrot tops and other organic table scraps she and co-workers at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association leave behind.

In return for the staff's generosity, the worms produce a nutrient-rich soil and an equally potent liquid fertilizer, and they also help keep about a half-pound of waste out of local landfills or water treatment plants each day.

The worm-composting bin in the association's Carol Stream lunchroom is just one of the "green" initiatives undertaken by the employees this year, but it's certainly the most unusual.

"People who are grossed out by the worms still put their leftovers in," Summers said. "We keep a little bucket on top of the bin for people to contribute."

It's a quirky but efficient way to keep rotting food out of the landfills or creating waste-laden sludge in our water treatment systems. It's been tried by residents, schools and businesses, but the financial incentives aren't there to make it catch on locally as it has elsewhere.

The worm bins have been a staple at many area elementary schools, which use them as a science education tool.

"About 10 years ago, we funded worm bins for schools, and many of those bins are still in operation or have been inherited by other teachers," said Gary Mielke, recycling coordinator for the Kane County Solid Waste Division. "Every once in a while I'll get a call from a teacher who says they got this weird thing in their new classroom with my number on it."

The special recreation association office is just one of many in DuPage that Kay McKeen is trying to make a little more eco- friendly. McKeen is the executive director of SCARCE, or School and Community Assistance for Recycling & Composting Education, which does "green" audits for schools and companies that suggest ways they can cut back on waste and save energy.

She said the worm bins -technically called vermicompost - are more popular in Canada and Australia than in the U.S.

"We were just teaching at the McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook," she said. "We supply the education, not the bins."

Those cost about $200 a pop. Summers said the association used funds from an insurance incentive program to purchase the bin used in the office. There are other costs - especially when the vermicomposting is done on a larger scale - that might discourage it from becoming an everyday part of life.

The massive IKEA store in Schaumburg, for instance, had a vermicompost program that required a 53-foot trailer to get rid of some of its customers' food scraps. The program lasted about six months and was part of an experiment operated by a University of Illinois student. It used 80,000 worms, said Tia Hanson, IKEA's environmental specialist.

"We found it really needed a staff to maintain it," she said. "There were a lot of challenges, but every life form that was hungry saw that trailer as dinner."

Similar programs exist in California, but Hanson said without the infrastructure and maintenance that also exists in the California system, the program was difficult to keep going.

Amazing tomatoes

St. Charles mom and environmental educator Heather Goudreau has worm bins in her house and another that she travels with and uses for classroom demonstrations.

"Mainly, I have mine for gardening purposes, but it also reduces waste in our garbage and keeps it out of landfills," she said.

The household and office worm bins contain about 1,000 "red wigglers." To start, the worms are mixed with a moist compost bedding and the food scraps are added daily.

The feasting worms create a solid and liquid waste, the latter called worm tea. It's collected in a separate container and can be used as fertilizer for indoor or outdoor vegetation. But it is so potent it has to be diluted with seven parts water for every one part of the tea, otherwise it will kill plants.

"I get amazing tomato plants that people can't believe how tall they get," Goudreau said.

After about a month, the worms are ready to be separated into a second tier of the bin, and the process starts all over again. A month later, they move into a third tier and the bottom tier is ready to be used as a solid fertilizer that also has to be diluted.

"People in this office who garden have already called dibs," Summers said.

At the heart of all vermicompost programs is the desire to keep food scraps from taking up precious space at landfills. While biodegradable, composting advocates say food waste unnecessarily takes up a large amount of space in landfills and emits troublesome methane gas when it breaks down.

"The other thing to do with it is put it down the garbage disposal, which creates more work at water plants," said Pete Adrian, recycling coordinator at the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County. "That results in sludges that have to be drained out of the water."

Much to the surprise of Summers' colleagues, the worm bins don't emit an odor.

"No one believed me that it wasn't going to smell, but I stuck my face right up to it," she said.

Ashley Summers was no stranger to vermicomposting. She and her husband had seen it practiced in homes and had discussed buying one for their house when her office purchased the worm bin in February. They finally broke down and got one.

"I'm a hippie," she said. "It was our Valentine's Day gift to one another

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