Once or twice a week Mary Apelhof dumps her collection of kitchen waste in a small wooden box in the basement of her Kalamazoo, Mich., home and forgets about it.
If she has her way, she'll get just about everyone else in the land to do the same sort of thing no matter where they live - homes, condos, or one-room efficiencies.
The point is, Mrs. Apelhof, with a master's degree in education to her credit , has developed a very effective, energy-efficient, and simple-to-set-up system of food-waste disposal that belongs as readily in the living room (given an appropriate elegance) as it does in a basement.
The result of her waste-disposal system is a black, crumbly humus that can enhance the beauty of houseplants or boost the productivity of the vegetable bed.
For the past 10 years Mary Apelhof has let the worms eat her garbage.
The worms in question are a species of earthworm known commonly as the red wriggler, the manure worm, the brandling, among others. In any event, they are the type of worm most commonly sold by worm farms and known to science as Eisinia foetida.
As she sees it, these unobtrusive, yet quietly efficient, creatures can do the same thing for all of us. Apparently the National Science Foundation thinks so, too, for it has awarded to Mrs. Apelhof a $25,000 grant to develop and refine the system further.
Mrs. Apelhof keeps her worms in a simple 1-2-3 box (1 foot deep, 2 feet wide, and 3 feet long) which she says can handle the food waste of a family with 4 to 6 members. In contrast, a friend of hers has a more ornate ''worm farm,'' which also doubles as a window seat in the living room. As a rule of thumb, you should have as many square feet of surface area for your disposal unit as there are pounds of waste produced in a week.
Mrs. Apelhof collects the food waste from her kitchen in a covered pail and once or twice a week buries it in the bedding of the worm bin. She buries it in a different space each week so that eight or nine weeks elapse before she returns to the original area. By that time there is barely a trace of the garbage in its original form, because most of it has become a rich black compost after passing through the worms' digestive tracts.
There is, she says, almost no smell to a worm farm. The odor that comes with a week's collected garbage quickly disappears once it is buried and the worms get hold of it.
Just off the press is a how-to-do manual on the subject, entitled ''Worms Eat My Garbage,'' by Mary Apelhof ($5.95), from Flower Press, 10332 Shaver Road, Kalamazoo, Mich. 49002. H. Lewis Batts Jr., executive director of the Kalamazoo Nature Center, summed up the book neatly when he described it as an ''enjoyable, readable, realistically described account of how you can convince earthworms to process your garbage for your benefit.''