By Ken Schmidt for SUST 240*
As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, humankind faces numerous environmental difficulties, whether it be global climate change, freshwater availability, pollution, etc. One area of trouble bisects almost all of these areas: waste. Here I address a subsection of a subsection of waste, namely Food Waste which falls under Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). In 2011 food waste accounted for over fourteen percent of all MSW generated in the United States, so it is quite evident that we should be doing everything in our power to reduce the amount of food waste we generate, while at the same time moving away from meat and toward a more vegetarian diet.
Most MSW is sent to landfill — and no matter how good the liner is, more often than not these landfills leak a toxic liquid called leachate into the local soil, groundwater, and waterways. Landfills ultimately pollute the atmosphere as well when materials decompose and methane, which is 20 times more impactful to Global Climate Change than carbon dioxide, is released into the atmosphere. This doesn’t even take into consideration the amount of water required to produce the food itself (aka its water footprint) which, when wasted, is simply tossed into landfill. Finally, we need to acknowledge the immorality of wasting so much food when over 800 million people across the globe are dealing with malnourishment or hunger.
So what can be done? In a nutshell, composting — the decomposition of organic wastes whose benefits are numerous must be dramatically ramped up globally. While there are fantastic examples of successful large-scale composting operation in the Chicagoland area, one being a handful of Whole Foods stores partnering with Waste Management to compost their rotten produce, they are the exception, not the rule. Few waste haulers provide curbside compost bins to their customers and while individuals could take their organic waste to a farm or organization who in turn composts it, there are few of these sites in the area, making transport both time and resource intensive.
The answer then lies in small-scale, on-site composting, involving a pile or bin located outside of a dwelling. How then could individuals living in apartments or condos, or those whose homeowners associations restrict such piles/bins, compost their organic material? The answer: vermicomposting in which worms, typically red wrigglers, consume this material and turn it into compost in the form of worm castings (i.e. worm poop) and nutrient-rich black liquid (which we lovingly refer to as the true “black gold”). Vermicomposting bins can be made from readily available materials or purchased as a complete kit.
My wife and I have been vermicomposting for over three years now and at this point could never even imagine not doing so. We’ve a Worm Factory bin on cement blocks in our basement which allows us to place a larger container on the ground to capture the “black gold” liquid. While cooler than the rest of the house, the temperature in the basement is still within the recommended temperature range of 59 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit so that the worms remain not only alive but active as well. While we also have a compost bin in our backyard, considering the fact that we eat so much fruits and vegetables throughout the year, it would not have been feasible to freeze the apple cores, banana peels, etc. during winter months while our bin outside was not active. Hence, vermicomposting which is incredible easy to setup and maintain; all of the work is done by the worms!
So what exactly is involved with vermicomposting? First you’ll need a bin to mix everything in; some “bedding” for which we’ve used leaves, coconut coir (the leftover material after a coconut has been harvested), and strips of newspaper; the organic material (food waste); some water; and air movement. Mix the bedding with the organic material (be sure not to put in any dairy, fat, meats, bones or oil), lightly water (we’ve a spritzer bottle of tap water) and cover the mixture with moistened newspaper or cardboard and let the worms have at it.
A few tips: 1) don’t place the bin in direct sunlight; 2) ensure the room where the bin’s located maintains “room temperature”; 3) don’t overwater as the worms can drown; and 4) to avoid fruit flies, ensure the newspaper/cardboard covering is kept moist.
In late winter/early fall we’ve planted our vegetable seeds in our worm castings and in late fall we’ve mixed castings into our vegetable garden beds which we then cover with leaves, so as to prepare them for the following spring’s plantings. We’ve enjoyed fantastic harvests using the worm castings, while keeping so much organic waste out of the waste stream. I simply cannot recommend vermicomposting highly enough. I hope this sparks your interest and you give it a go; I can almost guarantee you will not regret it!
* Each week during the Fall 2013 semester, one student in the SUST 240 Waste online/Schaumburg class at Roosevelt University will contribute blog posts to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website. Also see this discussion of food waste here in previous articles on this blog and in this section of the website.