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Wednesday, May 21, 2008 03:28 am

Recycle your food waste

Get acquainted with a bunch of worms and help the environment

Untitled Document We’ve all heard of the three R’s — reduce, reuse, and recycle — but many people have added a fourth R: rot, the recycling of food waste and other organic material through composting or vermicomposting. When these products are allowed to rot into compost, they are cycled back to the earth, thereby keeping waste from going into landfills. Organic materials are the largest component of municipal soil waste, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Yard trimmings and food scraps account for 25 percent of waste. Most of us are familiar with the recycling of plastic, aluminum, metal, paper goods, and glass, but few consider composting as a way to reduce waste. In addition to keeping valuable nutrients from ending up as garbage in a landfill, composting results in rich humus, which is a great fertilizer for plants. Yard and food waste can be recycled in a backyard compost bin, but there’s also vermicomposting, 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, nature’s best composters, are fascinating creatures, and most vermicomposters will admit that their worms are pets. They’re quiet, well-behaved, and don’t require regular feeding, and you don’t need a worm-sitter when you go on vacation. The worms are kept in a bin with shredded paper and fed food waste. Because worms are happiest at temperatures between 55 and 77 degrees, bins are usually kept indoors, but they can be placed outdoors if they won’t get too hot or too cold. Done correctly, vermicomposting is simple, clean, and odorless. Here are a few tips for starting a worm bin. The most common worm used for vermicomposting is Eisenia foetida, commonly called the redworm, red wiggler, or brandling worm. Redworms reproduce quickly in captivity, whereas nightcrawlers and earthworms from garden soil will not survive in captivity. You can get worms from fellow vermicompost enthusiast or a local supplier. So what’s on the menu for your redworms? They eat all kinds of food and yard wastes, including vegetable and fruit peelings, 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. Although the worms will eat most of these products, they shouldn’t be added to the bin 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 (nonglossy, noncolored), paper, and cardboard. The bedding needs to be moist, as damp as a wrung-out sponge. Add food wastes to the bin by burying the waste under about 3 inches of bedding. Continue adding food scraps for two to three months or until you notice that the bedding material has disappeared. This is when the vermicompost may be harvested. Many types of containers will work as long as they will provide darkness, warmth, and shelter for the worms, but the best material is wood or plastic. Plastic containers tend to be easier to maintain and less messy, but plastic may keep the compost too moist. Wood is more absorbent and a better insulator for the 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 1 pound of worms, about 1,000. This number of worms can eat about a half-pound of food scraps per day.
There are many great sources of information about vermicomposting. One popular book is Mary Applehof’s Worms Eat My Garbage, or go to the Shedd Aquarium’s online worm guide at www.sheddaquarium.org/pdf/shedd_worm_brochure1.pdf or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension’s “Vermicomposting”Web site at
 The University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit is wrapping up the completion of its compost demonstration area. Master gardeners invite you to join them as they begin construction of two compost bins at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 29. The program will be held in front of the U of I Extension Building, on the Illinois State Fairgrounds. A materials list and directions for building a compost bin will be provided. For more information, go to the extension Web site “Composting for the Homeowner” (web.extension.uiuc.edu/homecompost) or call 217-782-4617.
Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at fishburn@uiuc.edu.
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