Matt Miller, The Nature Conservancy
I lifted the coffee filter and found a raging party going on. A worm party, to be exact. Thousands of red worms crowded together in a wriggling mass as they enjoyed their morning coffee.
I wasn’t grossed out. After all, these little worms are my pets. For the past eight years, they’ve been eating, breeding and producing compost just 20 feet from my dinner table.
It’s true: My home has worms.
The colony of red worms resides in a small bin, a container that is both odorless and virtually unnoticeable to guests. Those worms also provide a valuable service: They turn our household vegetable waste—otherwise destined for a landfill—into rich, organic fertilizer for potting house plants and backyard gardening.
Vermicomposting—composting with worms—is an easy way to take care of food waste, even if you live in a small apartment.
A recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that more than 30 million tons of food is wasted each year, accounting for twelve percent of all household waste. About 98 percent of that food waste ends up in landfills.
That rotting food not only takes up space; it also generates methane—a major source of greenhouse gases.
You can do your part to reduce that waste: turn to the worm.
Getting started is easy. You just need a small bin, which you can easily buy or make. I use a plastic storage bin, with holes drilled in for ventilation. Another plastic pan sits underneath it to catch any excess liquid (what enthusiasts call “compost tea“).
Place a layer of soil the bin, add your worms and cover the top with lightly moistened newspaper. The worms will get to work immediately, and yes, they’ll begin by eating that newspaper.
What other waste will the worms eat? First, it should be plant matter, so avoid meat, dairy products and oils. My worms absolutely love coffee, as well as ground egg shells, greens, squash and melon rinds, tea bags, carrot shavings and most other veggie matter.
You can judge how much food your worms can handle. They breed regularly, and within a few weeks should be able to chomp through most of your kitchen scraps. The worm population will wax and wane depending on the amount of food you add to their bin.
Soon, dark soil will form from the worm casings (admittedly, a nicer term for worm droppings). You can then harvest these casings and use for your house plants or vegetable garden. To harvest, just start feeding the worms by placing all food in one corner of your worm bin; they will all congregate there. You can then simply scoop the worm-free soil from the rest of the bin.
Vermicomposting is catching on, and not just in the home. My favorite craft beer pub, the Bitter Creek Ale House, has a very large worm bin in its basement. While I’m enjoying a hoppy Northwest beer and local, organic food, below me thousands of worms are at work on the kitchen waste.
There are even industrial scale worm farms that convert dairy and pig manure, among other waste products, into compost. I once visited a huge warehouse filled with uncovered worm bins. Periodically, the worms would leave the bins en masse, coating the floor. The owner casually told me he merely used a hose to spray them into a corner, then shoveled them back into the bins—his version of a worm round-up.
I don’t recommend keeping the worms uncovered in your own home. But I do hope more people discover the hidden power of the worm—small creatures that convert our household waste into healthy, organic compost.
Matt Miller is director of communications for The Nature Conservancy’s Idaho program. A freelance outdoor writer and naturalist, Matt has traveled around the world in search of wildlife and stories. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
(Image: compost worms. Source: Flickr user jarsyl via a Creative Commons license.)