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How Worms Will Save the Planet

Little did I know when I starting putting pretty flowers in the ground that I would someday be elbow deep in worm poop but that's what's happened and I think it's pretty cool.

We have what we affectionately call the worm condo. It's 3 stories high and full to the brim with nifty red wigglers. Every 6 weeks or so I open up the layers, dump the black worm castings on a table and separate it from the worms.

Why have I chosen to willingly stick my hands into worm poop? Because composting is extremely important, not just to create fertilizer for our garden but also for the health of the planet.

First the numbers about food waste

  • Estimated 815 million people go hungry every day according to World Vision

  • An estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally each year

Food is wasted in a few ways

  • Food doesn't make it into the stores because it isn't pretty or perfect enough

  • Grocery stores throw out food that isn't sold

  • People buy too much food and it goes bad in the fridge and they throw out leftovers

  • Restaurants throw out uneaten food

Most of this food waste ends up in landfills which is the worst place for it. Landfills work by dumping the waste in a hole and covering it up. The "best" items for a landfill (it would be better if they didn't exist at all, of course) are non-organic. Any organic items, or anything that will rot and decompose, that are included in the landfill will create methane gases. That's why you will see pipes sticking out of the ground on a closed landfill. They are releasing the pent up gases.

According to the David Suzuki Foundation, about 20 per cent of Canada’s methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) comes from landfills.

Methane gases contribute to climate change by trapping heat within the atmosphere and anything we can do as individuals to stop heating up the environment is obviously a good thing.

Which is why we should all be composting.

But what exactly is composting?

Composting, or the decomposition of organic matter into humus (soil fertilizer), happens naturally with the help of water, heat, air, and tiny protozoa. Worms help the process along by eating the fungi produced as the matter breaks down. As they burrow down to avoid the light, they also pull air and organic matter further into the soil improving its overall structure. They have been doing this for millions of years.

Everything natural or organic decomposes. It is the circle of life. As one thing dies another grows from its waste. The most common example is fallen leaves in a forest bed. As the leaves decompose they provide nutrients for the surrounding trees and plants not to mention providing food and a home for thousands of insects that rodents.

Healthy soil is the foundation of the planet's survival. Soil that is full of worms and microbes ensure that our food has the nutrients we need to live. When we compost, we are taking our organic waste and putting it back where it can contribute the most to the soil, just like the decaying leaves.

Recently we watched the movie, Kiss the Ground, narrated by actor and environmentalist Woody Harrelson. It provides a wealth of information about how important our soil is to the future of the planet. I highly recommend it. You can find it on Netflix.

Most people who recycle know they shouldn't be putting food waste in the garbage but they avoid composting because of the ick factor. Food waste as it breaks down is messy and stinky. If not done right it can also attract unwelcome animals and insects. However, there are many options for ordourless and simple composting systems no matter what your living situation.

There are some municipalities here in Canada that will pick up your food waste curbside and that's great. But sometimes those systems don’t work very well and food waste still ends up in the landfill.

So if you are keen to control what happens to your food waste read on.

There are a few in house solutions available at different price ranges. I haven't personally tried the counter systems but I think the concept is truly sound.

In House Composting Systems

Starting on the high-end price range the FoodCycler ($499) is a countertop system that dehydrates your food waste in a few hours. The dry waste can then be distributed to your indoor plants, scattered around your lawn or donated to a neighbour who has a garden. This is the ultimate no ick solution.

The Bokashi Compost system ($75) works by using fermentation to break down your waste mix. It also can take any waste, including cooked food and animal bones. You simply add waste to a bucket, add a little accelerator powder and let it sit for two weeks. No electricity is required, just more time. The system claims to be completely odour free so you can store it under a sink or in a cupboard. The product it produces looks like simple black soil. Again, you can mix the compost into your own plants or donate it to a friend.

Worm Composting or Vermiculture

Worm composting is effectively the same process that happens outdoors it just works faster. Worms eat food scraps, effectively breaking it down, and compost comes out the other end. It also uses a different type of worm, the red wriggler (eisenia fetida), a smaller version of the outdoor worm (lumbricus terrestris).

Worm composters are relatively easy to set up with any type of covered container or you can purchase ready-made systems. Our 3 tiered unit took some learning to manage (it was given to me by a friend) but there are many simpler systems out there.

The process is pretty straight forward. You create a bed of shredded paper, and peat moss or decayed leaves and then add food. You continue to add food every couple of days for a few weeks and then you let them finish the buffet.

When most of the food is consumed you separate out the worms and put the castings in a bucket destined for the garden. Then you start all over again. The whole process takes a few weeks. You do need to purchase some worms online which may sound weird but is actually no different than buying worms for fishing. I'd say the ick factor is pretty high on this one. You have to be ready to get your hands dirty and be willing to handle squirmy worms. But, on the bright side, the end product had no distinctive smell.

It's actually a great activity for kids and you can find all sorts of educational information at Cathy's Crawly Composters.

Outdoor Composting Bin - the long game

Having land and a garden means we have to deal with other forms of organic waste like leaves and garden waste. So we also have two types of outdoor bins. We are still learning the best way to manage our outdoor debris but this is the system we have to date. For people with a yard in the city, I would recommend using just a well-sealed black bin tower to prevent attracting critters.

No worms are added to this process because they find the way there on their own. Crafty little buggers.

All composting works best with the right balance of brown and green waste as well as aeration. Brown waste can include mulched leaves, small wood chips, and shredded garden waste. We recently purchased a small shredder for brown waste which we hope will speed up the rate of breakdown. It goes for both green and brown mixes that smaller pieces are better. If you can, cut up your green waste into smaller pieces and crush your eggshells. Avocado rinds and pits can be put in the compost they just take longer to decompose.

Ideally, you want to layer your waste, brown than green than brown and so on. Everything will eventually decompose but if you want to kill off the weed seeds you need to get the centre of the compost up to 140F (60C) degrees at a minimum. Some people stick their hand into the mix to check the heat, others get a rod thermometer.

The trick is to have the right ingredients at the right time for layering. For this reason, we decided to use one bin to store all shredded brown waste and use a black bin for day to day food waste. Then we can create the appropriate layers by shifting the waste from each bin.

What is a black bin

There are a variety of bins on the market in shapes ranging from towers to spinning buckets. The point of the black bin is to create heat so you ideally want to place it in the sun. The towers can't be easily aerated so it is a good idea to add an organic compost accelerator occasionally. This can be purchased from your garden store. The spinning buckets can be turned by hand.

Remember, if you are only using the black bin you need to make sure you have a mixture of brown and green waste. Mulch up some leaves with your lawnmower and add it to the mix every time you add green waste or food scraps. Avoid large sticks.

When you start to collect your food waste in the kitchen it is best to find a small under-counter bin with a charcoal filter. This will keep the smell down. We have been using this one from Lee Valley for years and it's still going strong. We never smell the compost as we replace the filters every few months.

Keep in mind if your end goal is a worm composting system, they don't like anything citrus and they can't break down big things like pits. Try to cut up the waste before you add it to the worm bin.

What can be composted

  • All food scraps, eggshells, coffee grinds (and filters, preferably non-bleached), tea bags (check for biodegradable bags, not plastic)

  • Newspaper, paper (nothing glossy) - shredded

  • Cardboard - cut up into small pieces

  • Fireplace ashes (if only pure wood was burned - no plywood or painted wood)

  • Used tissues and paper towels

  • Vacuum bag contents and the bag if it is paper

  • Human and dog hair

  • Scrap fabric - only natural fabrics like cotton and wool

  • Cooked food

  • Animal bones (mostly limited to closed black bins)

  • Leaves, yard waste

All of this may sound super complicated but once you know the steps, it's no more difficult than recycling plastic and paper. With sustainable and eco-friendly living, it's really about finding a solution that suits your lifestyle. I know a woman who moves around so much that there is no way she would consider a worm composter. But a device that breaks waste down overnight. Perfect. My brother finds the best solution for him is to freeze his food waste and add it to our compost when he comes to visit.

The main thing is to keep food waste out of the landfill and to put it where it belongs, back into the earth. Composting indoors and out is a perfect example of the circle of life and it's an important part of the process to bring this world back into balance.

Worms aren't icky, they're essential.

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