by Sarah Shultz for Diets in Review
The nation’s tenth busiest airport, Charlotte Douglas International, sees about forty million passengers annually. Forty million passengers, among other things, generate a lot of trash, approximately half a pound per person. That’s why officials have implemented a new system to cut down on waste sent to the landfill using some unusual participants: almost 2 million worms.
Yes, worms, the kind you find in your backyard and in fishing tackle boxes. They’re nature’s composters, and they’re being enlisted to help manage the millions of pounds of waste the airport generates.
From bathroom paper towels to half-eaten hamburgers to coffee cups, many products soon find their way to the hungry worms. First, the trash is sorted by workers and recyclables are sifted out, baled and sold. In four months, 68 thousand dollars were made from selling the recyclables. Clothing items also are retrieved, washed and sold, the result of travelers quickly needing to lighten their bags before boarding flights. All of the organic material is then mixed together and the worms get to work.
The 300 pounds of worms eat half their weight each day, creating a rich compost that will then be used to fertilize the airport’s six thousand acres of grounds. Up to two tons of airport waste can be processed daily by the worms. The extra fertilizer, considered “black gold” by gardeners, will then be sold.
The most lucrative part of this whole process, however, is not the money made through selling recyclables and compost, but the money that will be saved. The airport spends almost a million dollars annually in hauling waste and landfill fees. With the new composting and recycling program, waste levels have gone down seventy percent, resulting in less waste than virtually any other airport.
In five years, airport officials expect to not only have recouped their money, 1.2 million to set up the operation, but to be turning a profit.
Other airports are taking notice. Interest in these worm composting operations, called vermicomposting, has increased considerably in recent years, with small and large scale composting being implemented in various places in the United States and abroad. This is the first airport to install a vermicompost system, but if it proves sustainable, may very well not be the last.