July 31, 2006

S.African hotel pampers worms to cut waste

By Gordon Bell

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - 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

"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, 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.