We have all heard of the three “r”s: reduce, reuse and recycle. There is a fourth “r” of integrated waste management: rot. This “r” also eliminates waste from entering landfills. Rot refers to recycling food waste and other organic material through composting or vermicomposting. By allowing these products to rot into compost, materials are cycled back to the earth.
According to a 2006 United States Environmental Protection Agency report, organic materials are the largest component of municipal soil waste. Yard trimmings and food scraps account for 25 percent of waste. Many of us are familiar with recycling plastic, aluminum, metal, paper goods and glass. However, few of us consider composting as a way to reduce waste.
Composting keeps valuable nutrients from ending up as garbage in a landfill. As an added benefit, the rich humus that is the result of composting is a great fertilizer for plants. Yard and food waste can be recycled in a backyard compost bin. Another type of composting is vermicomposting. This is the process of using worms to eat decaying food waste and produce vermicompost (worm poop, also called worm castings), a nutrient-rich soil amendment.
Worms are nature’s best composters. Worms are quiet, well-behaved, don’t need a regular feeding schedule and don’t need a worm-sitter when you go on vacation. Worm bins are usually kept indoors, however they can be placed outdoors if they don’t get too hot or too cold. Worms are happiest at temperatures between 55 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Done correctly, vermicomposting is clean and odorless.
Vermicomposting is simple. The worms are kept in a bin with shredded paper and fed with food waste. Here are a few tips for starting a worm bin.
The most common worm used for vermicomposting is Eisenia foetida, commonly called redworms, red wigglers or brandling worms. The redworms reproduce quickly in captivity. Nightcrawlers and earthworms from garden soil will not survive in captivity. You can get worms from fellow vermicompost enthusiast or a local supplier.
Redworms eat all kinds of food and yard wastes, including vegetable and fruit waste, coffee grounds and tea bags. Clean, crushed eggshells add grit and calcium for the worms. Avoid bones, dairy products, meats, garlic, onion, spicy foods, oily foods and domestic animal manure. While the worms will eat most of these products, don’t add them because they will smell. Under ideal conditions, redworms can eat half to all their weight in food scraps and bedding each day.
Bedding for bins can be made of shredded newspaper (non-glossy, non-colored), paper and cardboard. The bedding needs to be moist. It should be as damp as a wrung-out sponge.
Add food wastes to the bin by burying it under about three inches of bedding. Continue adding food scraps for two to three months or until you notice the bedding material has disappeared. This is when the vermicompost can be harvested.
Many types of containers will work as long as they provide darkness, warmth and shelter for the worms. The best material is wood or plastic. Plastic containers tend to be easier to maintain and less messy, however plastic may keep the compost too moist. Wood is more absorbent and a better insulator for worms, but is heavier and more expensive. A 12-gallon storage tub no more than 12 inches deep is ideal. This size of bin will hold about one pound of worms, which comes out to about 1,000 worms. This amount of worms can eat about half a pound of food scraps per day.