Thursday, August 30, 2007

1000 New Pets: Worm Composting

Our family has taken up vermiculture, or worm composting, the primary composting method that can work in an apartment.

Basically, it consists of a plastic bin, some shredded, damp newspaper, a supply of red worms, and our fruit and vegetable waste. We obtained our bin and worms from Flowerfield Enterprises, the company founded by the late Mary Appelhof, aka the "worm woman," and author of "Worms Eat My Garbage," which came with our bin. I recommend them highly.

Worm composting can work indoors because it is aerobic, rather than anaerobic, and thus does not produce the offensive odors we usually associate with rotting food. We started our bin about 10 days ago. Since then we have added such yummy articles as mushy carrots, soggy lettuce, old basil, roasted pepper skins, moldy fruit, tomato cores, corn husks, and watermelon rinds. Unlike our garbage can, which in the summer heat smells horrendous after one day, the worm bin smells almost poetically pleasant: phrases such as "a forest after the rain" come to mind.

Worms are extremely low maintenance--for example, you can easily go on vacation for a week or two without worrying about feeding them. You must make sure that the conditions in the bin are okay--not too wet or too dry and adequately aerated. Every few months, you must harvest your worm compost, either by dumping out your worms and separating them from the compost, or by putting new bedding and food on one side of the bin, allowing the worms to migrate, and then removing now mostly-worm free compost.

here is a short list of some of the environmental benefits of worm-composting:
1. it reduces amount of garbage sent to landfills, (including fuel needed to take waste to the dump)

2. it eliminates the methane produced when organic matter decomposes in anaerobic conditions: methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases with more than 20 times the heat-trapping capacity of CO2; a principal source of methane emissions is dumps

3. worms produce compost which increases the organic matter (and stored carbon) in soil, matter that in many parts of the world is being rapidly depleted through soil erosion

4. worm castings are a form of organic fertilizer that can reduce or eliminate the need for traditional fertilizer, which is energy-intensive to produce and causes serious environmental problems from run-off

Earth 911 has an excellent article about the benefits of compost for your plants.

While these benefits are real enough, the environmental effects of a single family's composting efforts are pretty modest. In the scheme of things, it is probably more important--in the sense of directly beneficial to the planet--for people to cut their electricity and gasoline use than for them to compost 500 pounds of vegetable scrapings each year.

Actually, I think the more significant benefits may be mental, but I think these also need to be articulated and defended.

Our worm bin is an ongoing biological experiment that is (to say the least) educational for the children and adults in our house--there is a good reason these bins are popular in schools. It helps educate my children about waste, ecology, "bugs," and the life cycle, among other things.

Even a few short days of composting has made us all newly conscious of what is going in our garbage can and how much we toss out every week; this awareness is a necessary first step to reducing our waste.

Most importantly for me, composting has enabled our whole family to recognize that our vegetable scrapings are not worthless--they do not have to be garbage. They can be put to use. As a society, we treat many things as garbage that actually have value: we just don't bother to discover and acknowledge that value. Rainwater is another example of this--in NYC we literally mix it with our sewage.

We need a new way to think about waste: one meaning of waste is "by-product," whatever is left over from a process--in this case carrot peels from dinner and worm castings from our bin. But another form of waste--the one that injures our minds in the deepest sense--is the destruction of potential.

These kinds of mental shift are absolutely key if we are going to adapt as a society to confront the challenges ahead of us.

1 comment:

Lindsay Sturman said...

We have also recently started composting in Southern CA. We use a tumbler in our backyard, and it has become a family ritual to "compost" -- my kids jump up to do it.

The best part is it is a fascinating science experiment for the kids (ages 5 and 6).

Their schools are also thinking of following suit.

We are using a "tumbler" which we bought on Here is some more information: