Vermicompost


-- "All the fertile areas of this planet have at least once passed through the bodies of earthworms." -- Charles Darwin




What is Vermicompost? Vermicompost is an all natural method for recycling nutrients in food waste. The method employs soil bedding and red worms, and over time, the worms will turn food into compost.

Benefits of worm composting:
•    provides garden with rich organic fertilizer
•    natural recycling method
•    helps restore soil- the soil in verimcomposts have five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus, and 11 times more potassium than ordinary soil (Luther study)
•    Composting in general is a good idea- getting food out of landfills and recylced into garden materials.

Is it right for Macalester? Essentially, vermicomposting is a small-scale form of composting that is ideal for those who want to compost, but have a limited amount of space. This is certainly the case for Macalester College, which has an environmentally aware student body who want to practice more sustainable habits, but doesn’t have the luxury of space to realize all of their big environmental ideas. This study will analyze different vermicompost initiatives that have been taken at other colleges, and access the model that would best ‘fit’ at Macalester.


II. History (and future) at Macalester:

        The school has hired Fred Rizynakski, a landscape architect from Barr Engineering Company, to help design a new landscape management for the college. It is our hope that our group’s contributions will be taken into serious consideration when decisions are being made about the future changes to our campus. As part of my group’s Landscape Management Plan for Macalester College, I will analyze the pros and cons of introducing a vermicompost system as a part of the compost initiative here. Before going any further, I would like to outline the definition of Vermicomposting I will use throughout the paper:
        Many colleges and universities around the world have implemented vermicompost systems as a compost method on campus within the last few decades. Currently, Macalester does not have a campus wide vermicompost system, but rather has had a few isolated productions. In the past, vermicompost systems have been set up in the Eco-house, as well as other Language and culture on-campus houses.
        Nowhere in the 2005 Campus Analysis Report of 2005 is there mention of the potential of vermicompost initiatives on campus, which I think is a big mistake. I say it is a mistake not because I am convinced vermicompost is right for Macalester, but because it was not taken into consideration at all. Initiatives like vermicompost need to be assessed regardless of the likelihood of implementation. As we have learned about in class semester, I believe a precautionary principle must be utilized towards the unknown: I like the example that we wouldn’t want to let a species we known little about go extinct, on the reasoning that it may hold the cure to a disease, or be an important food source in the future. This is why I conducted a case study analysis of different campus vermicompost initiatives, so before making a campus wide decision to exclude the innovation, we have a fair and balanced assessment of its implications for Macalester. This analysis will hopefully aid me in deciding whether vermicomposting is suitable for Macalester, cost-efficient, and easy enough to implement.


III. Case Studies:

Instead of issuing a full literature review on the subject, I instead thought it would be much more practical to issue a case study analysis of campus’s that have already implemented some form of vermicompost, and analyze a. the transferability of the project to a campus like Macalester, b. the pros and cons, in context to Macalester, of the project, and c. the likelihood it would “fit” into future plans. By using case studies, I think I can achieve a more influential argument, as well as provide a much more practical and tangible guide for a committee to reference. A lot of decisions at Macalester College are based of other campus’s current models, so I thought it would be important to include concrete, real life examples.

1.    Eco-house: the status quo

-    Currently uses a vermicompost bin to compost food scraps.
-    Use a stacking tray-style worm bin called ‘The Worm Factory”
-    Use an indoor bin because of the cold Minnesota climate. Indoor bin has an ‘upward migration system’, allowing worms to move upwards as they eat, leaving the bottom trays with the finished compost product. This allows for little maintenance and ‘spoiling’ of the compost.
-    Produces little odor
-    Say “taking a trip to the basement once or twice a week to visit your ‘worm friends’ can be a pleasant and even exciting activity”.
-    Also has a spigot that allows for water drainage for "worm tea," which can be used to fertilize plants. 

                       Expenses
The Worm Factory Unit
$87.00
Worms (unspecified amount)
$42.25
Total
$129.25


Source: http://www.macalester.edu/ecohouse/composting.htm

2.    University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI: large scale vermicompost

-    Have a 6 by 8 foot unit equipped with automatic heating and cooling to maintain temperature at 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
-    A group of students, with the support of UM Waste Management Services staff, researched vermicomposting options and drafted a paper describing the potential for using this method on campus.
-    The red worms feast on 50 pounds of food waste three days a week.
-    Need to weigh household food waste for one week (in pounds), and then provide one square foot of surface area per pound.
-    Correct ratio of worms to food waste should be: for one pound per day of food waste, use two pounds of worms (roughly 2000).
-    Since the inception of the food waste-composting program in August 1997 through June 2006 almost 396 tons of food waste has been composted.
-   
                                          Success of compost initiative, by year.
Fiscal Year, Compost (tons)
FY 1998, 29.64
FY 1999, 22.30
FY 2000, 10.26
FY 2001, 34.52
FY 2002, 47.85
FY 2003, 64.96
FY 2004, 67.54
FY 2005, 66.09
FY 2006, 52.70
FY 2007, 33.69
FY 2008, 42.70
FY 2009, 66.60


 
a.    Pros and Cons. There are many pros to this system: the machine is self-operating which means the project would require little maintenance. However, this kind of machinery comes with a hefty price, starting around $5,000. Also, at the University of Michigan, they had to discontinue the program just two years after it began, because of mechanical problems with the vermicompost machine.
b.    Transferability/ Likelihood at Macalester: It is highly unlikely this model would be transferable to Macalester’s campus for many reasons. The first being space: The University of Michigan’s campus is 3,177 acres compared to Macalester’s 53 acres, almost 60 times the size! Even though the bin is relatively small (would take up 48 square feet), space is very precious at Macalester: each faculty, organization, and interest groups are fighting over every inch of the campus, and how it should be used. The likelihood that a. the project would be funded are b. the space would be allotted are extremely low. Facilities would likely be hesitant to hosting a dumpster-like bin over creating more green space, parking, or other pressing land-use issues. Synopsis: Highly unlikely. 


3. Luther College, Decorah, IA: Worms in Residences

 
Luther students practicing vermicompost in residence halls
http://www.luther.edu/sustainability/news/

-    Luther has brought vermicomposting to their residence halls.
-    Students can throw away their organic wastes (vegetable and fruit compost) and can also place old paper and receipts in the compost bins.
-    In order for this to work, would need to employ work-study "worm keepers"
-    The red worms can eat at least their own weight in organic matter in a day.
-    Raises awareness about environmental sustainability.
-    Red worms prefer temperatures between 55 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit and are suited to living in a worm bin.
-    The temperature of the bedding should not be allowed to get below freezing or above 84 degrees. This shouldn't be a problem as long as the bins are placed in year round residence halls, and there are student employees who take care of the compost sites.

a.    Pros and Cons: This method is low cost, simple model. However, you get what you put into it. This vermicompost initiative would not have as large of a capacity as an industrial sized vermicompost system would. Also, by taking it down to the residential level, a lot of compost from large communal areas could be neglected in the process. One of the main problems with scaling down the operation is loss of accountability: if the responsibility and duties are left to students, the job may not be done properly. If it was managed and funded by facilities, there would be more incentive to keep the process ‘going’.
b.    Transferability/Likelihood at Macalester: This initiative is one of the most likely of the case studies to be applied at Macalester, and in fact, already has to some extent in the Eco-house. This should definitely be considered at Macalester, especially when the next residence hall (probably Dupre) is renovated or rebuilt. Synopsis: Highly Likely.

4.    University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada: combination of small/large scale vermicomposting

-    Small-scale vermicomposting at residence halls and cafeterias and campus centers.
-    Reduced the amount of organic material sent to the landfill.
-    Reduced the cost of waste removal and disposal for the university.
-    Reduced costs associated with the purchase of organic fertilizers and irrigation of the grounds at the university.
-    Having the vermicompost systems in residence halls, helped educate students, staff, and faculty on sustainable issues.
-    Contributed to the goals of the university to make the campus more sustainable.
-    Outlines what you can and cannot put in a vermicompost (see below).


Source: http://www.recycle.ubc.ca/compost.htm

a.    Pros and Cons: The University of British Columbia seemed to take a very practical approach to their vermicomposting: to save money while saving the environment. Their initiative focuses on the cost benefits of the program, which is an important element to consider. They use their composted material as fertilizer for campus gardening, which is a really smart idea. A downside to their system, similar to Luther, is that the vermicompost takes place in the residence halls, and not on a large scale. At UBC, they have compost collections right next to trash bins, so very few people have direct contact to the process, which is a good idea because it makes it easier. However, they did not specify who transported and maintained the vermicompost bins, whether it was students or facilities staff. A major downside of the operation is that they have made it open to the general public to use as well, but there have been problems of (unintentional) contamination.
b.    Transferability/ Likelihood at Macalester: This model is extremely mendable to Macalester’s campus, as UBC is an urban campus. Also, since part of our Landscape Management Plan is to improve green spaces, the vermicompost could be contributed to that effort as well. However, if we were to set up compost bins around campus, it would be a pricey investment because it would require new trash/recycling units all across campus. Also, many students currently misuse the recycling bins, and it would be a slow learning curve to teach students what they can and cannot compost. Students are not likely to stop and read a list before they toss their waste, and it would be difficult to set up a large informational session, much less get people to attend. A lack of interest has forced Waste Management at UBC to discontinue their wormbin composting workshops. It may be telling that even with 40,000 students, they don’t have enough interest in independent vermicomposting. Synopsis: Somewhat likely.





IV. Cost-Benefit Analysis

-    One worm composter has the potential to divert to kg of waste from the landfill every week. 
-    Presently, it costs between $40-50/ton for Macalester to dispose of its waste at the landfill, not including fuel and transport costs.  The initial set up cost for residential vermicompost systems are very low, the Macalester Eco-house did it for $129.25, so the initial capital would be earned back after just 2 or 3 tons of waste.
-    Perhaps Macalester Waste Management could establish a cash incentive for students living on campus: for every ton of waste they compost, and therefore save the school $40-50 dollars in landfill fees, they would receive $30.00 for their effort. This would most likely to a group initiative, and could be made into a competition between residences.
-    The number of worms needed would depend on the amount of waste generated per day. One lb of red worms will take of a half-pound of garbage
-    Newspaper clippings could be used to keep the compost balanced between nitrogen and carbon materials, therefore cutting down on costs for ‘worm food’.
-    Macalester could also use the vermicompost system as a way of branching out to the community, and allow public use of compost dumping, as this would benefit us by increasing our fertilizing supply and also benefit those in the community who want to help with the environment, but don’t have the time or energy to do the compost management themselves.
-    An industrial sized vermicompost system would take much longer to pay off the initial investment, but would allow Macalester more capacity in waste output. It would also distinquish Macalester as one of the environmentally revolutionaries in the area.