Using Worms to Keep Kitchen Waste to a Minimum

(Illustration by Jehane Samaha/ecoRI News)

(Illustration by Jehane Samaha/ecoRI News)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — When Shari Weinberger’s sister-in-law handed her a pint of red wigglers, her reaction wasn’t quite Lloyd Christmas-like in the comedy classic “Dumb and Dumber.” She didn’t brag, “I got worms,” to anyone. She politely accepted the “gift” and wondered quietly what she was going to do with them.

Now, five years later, that deli pint container is a 14-gallon Rubbermaid bin that holds tens of thousands of worms, and anytime the temperature drops below 32 degrees Weinberger brings their home into hers.

“I never thought I’d be bringing worms into my house,” she said. “I know they’re not pets, but they are kind of part of the family.”

Vermicomposting is simple to set up and the maintenance is minimal. The worms do all the work. In fact, vermicomposting is one of the most satisfying types of recycling, based on the fact that unlike, say, plastic bottles, you can actually witness the process.

The Weinberger’s red wigglers dine regularly on vegetable and fruit scraps. No onions or citrus, and nothing cooked. And since the three-member family is vegetarian, so are the worms. Neighbors occasionally bring by coffee grounds. Red wigglers also will dine on pet hair, tea bags and eggshells. Avocado pits take some time to be eaten.

Worm-based composting reduces the amount of valuable food scrap that is buried or burned. Without the worms, the Weinberger family’s trash bin would be making more frequent trips to the curb. A pound of red wigglers will eat between 1.5 and 2 pounds of food scrap a week.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that each American throws away an average of 1.3 pounds of food scrap daily. The combination of this wasted material, along with yard trimmings, makes up 24 percent of the country’s municipal solid waste stream.

Composting via worms, however, accomplishes much more than reducing how many times you have to drag your trash bin to the curb. The process also produces nutrient-rich plant food.

Vermicompost is a heterogeneous mixture of decomposing food scrap, worm castings (worm manure) and bedding materials — damp shredded newspaper and coconut coir work best. This nutrient-rich mixture reduces the need for chemical fertilizer.

Weinberger uses vermicompost on her potted vegetable plants. “It’s some of the richest, best soil I’ve ever seen,” she said. In fact, her worms are so prodigious in their vermicompost production that Weinberger gives much of her black gold away to neighbors.