About one third of all waste generated in New York City is biodegradable and could easily be composted, I imagine those numbers are fairly accurate for any U.S. city. It’s crazy to think that all this organic waste that could be naturally retuned to the eco system sits in a landfill surrounded by plastics and other toxic waste. Technically, this organic waste will biodegrade in time even in a landfill, except there is one component crucial to the breakdown process missing — air.
This past weekend I attended a workshop on Indoor Worm Composting arranged by the Lower East Side Ecology Center. The room at Jefferson Market Library was filled to the brim with aspiring vermicomposters, from young school children to retirees. There was even a New York Times reporter and photographer in attendance. I guess composting is starting to get on the mainstream radar. It certainly seems to bring people together.
Growing up in Sweden, recycling has always been a natural part of life for me. We separate hard plastics from soft, colored glass from clear, recycle metal, batteries, and paper. A few years ago a government-run national composting system was also established, where people are given brown bags in which to place all their biodegradable waste. This then goes into a separate (brown) outdoor bin that is picked up at the same time as the regular trash. It always is at least full, if not fuller, than the regular bin. It is carted away and if and whenever you want you can go pick up the finished soil. It’s a great system that makes composting really easy for the average person. I walked into the workshop thinking that if I only got the worm bin, I had this all figured out. Turns out individual indoor composting is a bit more complicated than the large scale municipal kind.
The compost bin is called a worm condo. There are several different kinds, and you could repurpose any container to make your own, preferably out of wood or plastic. Cityfarmer.org gives one suggestion on how to calculate size; measure how many pounds of food waste you generate every week and provide one square feet of surface area per pound. The depth of the container should be about a foot. The LES Ecology Center sells a worm condo ($55, including worms, $40 if you attend the workshop) that looks just like a plastic storage bin, except it has small holes on the bottom and vents on the sides to let air in. It also has snap-lock lid, which may be comforting if you are afraid of having the worms escape. Although one of my main takeaways from the workshop is that if your worms do try to escape, you’re definitely doing something wrong. Fair enough.
There are two types of worms that work in indoor composts, Redworms (Eisenia foetida), commonly known as Red Wigglers, and Red Earthworms (Lumbricus Rubellus). Larger, more common dew worms (the ones used as fishing bait) are not recommended, as they are unlikely to survive in an enclosed environment. Worms are hermaphrodites and reproduce asexually, and they do so until the population reaches a level where it can sustain itself. My condo will start out with 1000 tenants, which is basically a pound. Since they consume about half their body weight in food every day, my thousand reg wigglers can take care of about three pounds of food waste each week.
The main thing to keep in mind is to keep the ecosystem inside your bin healthy, which means you have to keep a balance between what is called “browns” (newspaper, shredded cardboard, paper napkins, leaves, compostable plates etc.) and “greens” (vegetables, fruits, eggshells, coffee grounds, unbleached filters, teabags etc.). If there is more of one than the other the bin may start getting smelly, which is not something us apartment dwellers need. Meats, fish and dairy should be avoided in indoor composts since it can attract rodents. Bread can cause mold to grow, which, if left uncontrolled, can start to take over the whole bin. Tropical fruits should be frozen before put into the compost, since they contain eggs and larvae than can cause raging fruit fly problems. A general rule is that anything from nature can be composted, if it is not too acidic or oily. So, for example, a salad drenched in dressing, pizza or Chinese food are better left in the regular trash. Seems the worms know how to better control their diet than humans do sometimes.
To set up your bin, you need to fill it about 3/4 to the top with shredded newspaper, which will act as the bedding, mimicking leaves in the worms’ natural habitat. The strips should be about one inch. Before putting them into the bin wet them in the sink and squeeze out the excess water until there are no drips. I found a weekend of the New York Times (which is also printed with soy inks) to be sufficient. When you have distributed and fluffed up the bedding it’s time to put the wigglers into their new home. Put them on top and cover with a layer on bedding, because worms are a bit sensitive to light. It may be a good idea to put some food for them to start, as well as a bit of soil in there so they can work up the grits they use to “chew” the food scraps. The food waste should always be placed on the bottom of the bin, underneath the newspaper.
What you end up with is called vermicompost, which is basically worm poop — a great nutrient for plants commonly referred to as Black Gold. It is not to be confused with potting soil, which is what I thought it was a first. When you are ready to harvest your compost, stop feeding the worms for two weeks, then move all the compost over to one side of the bin. Keep putting new food on the other side and in two more weeks all the worms should have migrated over there, making you able to scoop out the finished vermicompost. And then, the cycle starts all over again.
Beyond being a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, composting just makes you more aware of all the organic waste you throw out. My boyfriend and I find ourselves thinking about our worms constantly, contemplating if they will like something and whether we should take our restaurant leftovers home to feed the wigglers. For children, it is also a great way to teach them about how ecosystems work, and hopefully give them a sense of empowerment to change the world for the better. Maybe soon, every major city in this country will have municipal composting systems, but until then it is up to us to harness the amazing powers of worms. Perhaps Charles Darwin put it best. “The plow is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly plowed, and still continues to be thus plowed by earth worms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”
For more information, contact the LES Ecology Center or a similar organization in your neighborhood, visit vermiculture.com, Earth911.com or join the vermicomposters.com community. Hey, even IKEA is doing it.