Case Studies in Ecodesign: Vermicomposting

By Adam Brock

With the exceptions of dedicated gardeners and the 6-to-10-year-old set, worms generally aren’t something we spend much time thinking about. But they’re as valuable to healthy plants as water and sunlight – their constant burrowing keeps the soil airy, while their droppings (or “castings”) make wonderful fertilizer. So wonderful, in fact, that Princeton dropout Tom Szaky and his company TerraCycle have made a killing selling the stuff out of reused soda bottles.

While away in Arizona, I developed a worm plan, as well – though my own ambitions were somewhat more modest. I wanted to cut down on my house’s landfill waste, while rejuvenating the soil in our little Brooklyn yard. Worms seemed like a good choice over a traditional compost bin: they munch through scraps much faster than bacteria can break it down, meaning that you get your fertilizer in about two months, rather than a full year. They’re also smaller, and the end product is richer in nutrients. And so, with the help of a few handy guides, I channeled my inner 3rd grader and dove in to the rich and slimy world of vermicomposting.

The first step was finding a suitable box. I didn’t want to have to buy anything new, and making one out of old wooden pallets – an abundant resource in Williamsburg – seemed like too much work. So I settled on a big plastic storage bin we had sitting around, and drilled holes around the edges for ventilation. Next, I tore up some newspapers (black and white only – color ink is bad for the worms) into 1-inch strips for bedding. I got the strips moist and put them in the bin, fluffing them up till they gave a 6 inch cover. Finally, I needed to buy worms – specifically Lumbricus Rubellus, or Red Wrigglers. I got these from the Lower East Side Ecology Center stall at the Union Square Greenmarket, for $18.50 for a pound.

And that was it. Three hours of work and $18.50 was all it took to get a living, writhing decomposition machine going in my yard. A week after setting up the bin, it seems to be working great: the worms are wriggling away, the bedding is warding off flies and smells, and there’s a growing layer of rich brown stuff at the bottom of the bin. The only issue: my house, full of hungry 21-year-old boys, seems to be making more food waste than the box can handle. With the amount of scraps we’re generating, getting into the fertilizer business might not be such a bad idea, after all…

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