Looking Up to the Lowly Worm

They toil day and night in rotten conditions in dark cellars, and what do they get? Garbage!

CONSIDER, for a moment, the worm.

For 300 million years, this decidedly unglamorous creature burrowed through the earth in obscurity, encountering fellow life forms only in the wake of a downpour. In recent millenia, worms faced the ignoble prospect of being stomped on by gleeful children.

That was then.

Today, worms are hip, they're hot, and according to some experts, they're ``what's happening'' on the ecological scene.

Not only have farmers embraced earthworms as harbingers of healthy soil (see related story, left), they have been put to work in basements across the country. Their mission? Munching rubbish.

According to Mary Appelhof, worm activist and author of the groundbreaking 1972 book ``Worms Eat My Garbage,'' interest in vermicomposting is ``exploding.'' Of the 50,000 copies of her book in print, she says 15,000 were sold last year alone, and sales of a similar book aimed at elementary-school classrooms are picking up, too.

She cites a survey of 155,000 households in Seattle which found that 2.6 percent practice vermicomposting. ``That averages out to about 750 tons of [composted] garbage a year in Seattle alone,'' she says.

Here's how it works: Participants dump food waste into a bin full of small, hyperactive red worms - the kind that usually hang out in manure piles.

As the waste decays, the wrigglers begin to feed on it. Their digestive systems transform the garbage into a nutrient-rich compost that can be added to potting soil or applied as fertilizer.

``What it is, essentially, is on-site recycling,'' Ms. Appelhof says. ``We've had a lot of interest from institutions who want to start vermicomposting programs on a larger scale.''

One such group is the Conservation Law Foundation in downtown Boston. Comptroller Margaret Benson explains that when the group purchased a 13,000-square-foot building in 1989, they aimed to make it ``a model of recycling.''

Initial research showed that food waste accounted for a significant portion of the building's waste stream. Determined to recycle this waste, Ms. Benson says the group sought the advice of a recycling expert who recommended worms.

``Composting in a rural setting is easy,'' she says, ``in an urban environment it's more of a challenge.''

The Foundation started its program with 5 lbs. of red worms in 3 bins, a total of about 3,000 critters. Today, Benson says the industrious red worms consume 837 lbs. of garbage per year: an average of 24 lbs. per person, or 2.3 ounces per worm. That's about 8 percent of the building's total waste by weight.

Benson adds that the program has brought a flood of inquiries, including one from the office of Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, to which the group happily donated one of its bins.

``When schoolkids come to visit, they love to see the worms,'' she says. ``They're not a source of odor or vermin, they're part of an integrated recycling program.''

When the bins arrived, Benson placed Tupperware containers near the building's ``coffee stations'' in which employees place worm-friendly garbage like banana peels, bread crusts, and apple cores. Materials such as coffee grounds, meat and dairy products do not compost well.

After a few weeks of trial and error, Benson says the staff was able to master the fine points of composting.

``The challenge is making sure there's a moisture balance. If stuff gets dry, we add moist shredded paper,'' he says. ``If it's too wet, we add dry organic material like old flowers from somebody's desk.''

In addition to saving landfill space, Benson says the practice saves money. ``It costs nothing to maintain the worm bins, but it costs us $2.75 to have a bag of garbage hauled away. When you compare it to the cost of garbage removal, it's relatively free.''

``People participate with very few exceptions,'' she adds. ``A smaller group could easily sustain a bin full of worms.''

How do the red worms feel about their new office jobs? Insiders say these selfless little heroes don't seem to miss their bucolic farm lives. It appears the basement beats the great outdoors.

* Mary Appelhof's book can be ordered by writing Flower Press, 10332 Shaver Road, Kalamazoo, MI 49002. Phone: (616) 327-0108. Fax: (616) 343-4505.

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