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Make a Worm Bin – a Stuck At Home Project

Now that we’re all staying home for a while it’s a great time to do some of the projects that we’ve been dreaming of.  I have wanted to start a worm bin for composting food scraps so I can have the castings (worm poo) to put on my potted plants.  Here’s the story of how I went about my project.

Vermicomposting or worm composting is easy and fun.  We all know that food scraps in the landfill are a big problem because they create the mega-greenhouse gas, methane.  Composting those scraps is the best thing to do, but if you don’t have room for a regular bin you can use worms as your garbage disposal.  You just feed your food scraps to the worms and they turn it into castings that are a wonderful odor-free fertilizer for houseplants and gardens.

Here’s what I did:

First, I got on the internet and read a bit about making and maintaining a worm bin on the NC State University’s website (https://composting.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-2/ ).  As I was reading I wrote up a list of questions and called Rhonda Sherman, the “Worm Lady” at NC State.  Rhonda is known worldwide for her work in vermiculture and I knew she’d have all the answers. 

Me:  Does it matter what color the bin is?  I know worms can’t see, so they don’t “care” what color the bin is, but do they tend to thrive better in one color over another?
Rhonda:  One color is not any better than another, but dark is better than clear because they’re sensitive to light.  Also, a shallow bin is better than a deep one, 14-18 gallon size is recommended

Me:  Is sawdust an ok matrix to start with?
Rhonda:  Not sure that’s a good idea since sawdust could heat up as it composts and that would not be good for the worms.  It would be better to use shredded cardboard mixed with shredded newspaper.

Me:  Do the worms do better if I run the food scraps in the blender or mash them up before I put them in the bin?
Rhonda:  Yes, smaller pieces are easier for the worms to eat, but it’s not absolutely necessary.  Be sure to drain off the liquid before putting blended food into the bin, too much water is a problem.   

Me:  What local resource do you recommend for purchasing worms?
Rhonda:  Here in the Triangle area New Soil Vermiculture and Red Hen Enterprises are great places to buy worms.

Me: I have chickens, is their soiled bedding good for the worms?
Rhonda:  No, chicken manure is too high in ammonia.

Me:  I have a wood burning fireplace, do the worms like ashes?
Rhonda:  NO wood ashes are too acidic.

Me:  What else should I know about vermiculture before I start?
Rhonda:  Overfeeding is the #1 problem of home bins, wait until the food is gone before adding more.

Armed with the information from Rhonda’s website and answers to my questions, I set about finding a suitable container.  I had several plastic bins that I’ve used for other purposes over the years, so I didn’t need to buy one.  Against Rhonda’s recommendation I chose a clear container because I will be using my worm bin to show vermicomposting at festivals and lectures that I do for the NC Composting Council.  I thought it would be best if people could look at the worms and castings through the side of the bin rather than always opening the top.  Since I don’t have a drill, I used a hammer and big nails to punch holes in the bottom of the bin so that the excess fluid can seep out.  The sides of this particular style of bin already had air holes, so I didn’t need to make more.  Time to add the bedding.

I have a regular compost bin in my backyard, and I keep a stack of newspapers to add in whenever I need more carbon material.  I leave the stack outside so it will always be soaked with rain – torn into strips, this made a perfect bedding for my worms.  Now all I needed was the worms themselves.  

There are several good sources online where you can order Red Wiggler worms for composting, but I like to support local businesses whenever possible so I called New Soil Vermiculture in Durham and Garry Lipscomb was happy to help me.  I drove to Durham and picked up a pound of worms for just under $40.

Back at home I rummaged through my kitchen scrap bin and selected the bits that worms would like, egg shells, banana peals, old bread and coffee grounds.  I put them all into an old Chinese food container and used my hand held blender to chop them into worm-bite size pieces.  I added this to the newspaper bedding and dumped the worms in, then topped it off with more moist newspaper to cover the worms, and put on the lid.  Rhonda Sherman tells me that you really don’t need to feed the worms for a day or two after moving them into a new home, they get along just fine in the wet newspaper and it gives them some time to adjust.  

Under the bin I put a stray lid from a larger bin to catch anything that would drain out.  My worm bin now resides under my deck where it’s nice and dark most of the time and the temperature is consistent.  In the winter I may move the bin into my laundry room if the winter nights are very cold.

When I checked on my worms this morning – less than 24 hours after putting the bin together – the worms had distributed themselves throughout the bedding and there are castings everywhere which means that everyone is happy and healthy and going about their composting business.  I’ll be able to harvest castings to use on my container vegetable garden in a month or so.

The NC Composting Council’s website has a page on Vermicomposting  (https://carolinacompost.com/vermicomposting/) where you can see several designs of worm bins to buy, so if you don’t want to make your own you can just order one on the web.

Happily, there are many good resources for how and why to compost with worms, here are some of our favorites for exploring the science more thoroughly and seeing various ways to make worm bins for indoors and outdoors.

Vermicomposting, NC State University – https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/raising-earthworms-successfully
https://composting.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-2/, https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-a-school-enrichment-curriculum

Vermicomposting For Beginners, Rodale Institute – https://rodaleinstitute.org/science/articles/vermicomposting-for-beginners/

Vermicomposting – Making Good Use Of Garbage, National Institute of Health – https://kids.niehs.nih.gov/topics/reduce/vermicomposting/index.htm

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Don’t Waste Your Yard Waste-Use It!

by Ruby Stanmyer

Spring has sprung in North Carolina meaning that weekends are full of gardening, landscaping, and yard maintenance. To some, the resulting yard waste is a nuisance. It used to be common practice to gather up this waste and burn it, while some prefer to bag it up and throw it in the trash. However, there are many regulations surrounding open burns and sending yard and household waste to landfills also may not be the best practice. Smoke from burning vegetation (such as leaves and weeds) may contain toxins such as carbon monoxide and particulate matter that can increase your risk of respiratory infection. Children and adults who have respiratory illnesses, allergies, or asthma may be disproportionately affected.

Composting could save hundreds of thousands of tons of waste from going to the landfills. Every year North Carolinians throw over 10 million tons of trash! Out of this astronomical number, the USDA Food Loss Project Analysis estimates that at least almost 1 million tons is food waste generated within residential homes in North Carolina. This remains a conservative estimate and it is likely that the actual number is far higher. Removing food waste from the trash systems would represent a success in our waste cycle. Currently, North Carolina is one of the largest exporters of waste in the country, behind only New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio. This is due to landfill limitations and high costs of disposal. The two largest urban areas in the state, Raleigh and Charlotte, are considering a pay-as-you-throw solid waste program that would charge higher prices based on how much trash you generate. In an effort to control trash, food waste, and higher prices, residential homes in North Carolina should be encouraged to participate in household composting! As well as being good environmentally and economically, the end product of compost is a useful soil addition and fertilizer for your planting needs.

Composting can be as simple as creating a pit or pile in your yard where you put food, yard waste, or most other kinds of organic matter (for more information on what to compost, visit EPA.gov and search “composting”). There are different methods of DIY containers for more secured options. Additionally, there are compost bins that you can easily purchase. Once you have a receptacle, add organic material, and mix the material weekly, until it begins to naturally decompose. If you reside in a suburban or urban area, particularly within the Triangle, there are also neighborhood compost systems. These local businesses charge a small monthly fee which provides weekly compost pick-up right to your door. Most often provide the finished compost product to their customers free of cost. Compost enriches and fertilizes soil upon application. It also helps retain moisture, improves aeration, provides essential nutrients to plants, helps balance pH, can extend the growing season by moderating the soil temperature, and can help control soil erosion.

Composting is a practical solution for yard and household waste. In many areas, burning of leaves and yard refuse is prohibited due to potential health impacts and the fear of larger scale fires. Composting remains a highly efficient way to re-use both yard and household waste. Considering the huge amount of trash that we produce every day, composting is not a hard step to take to reduce the amount of waste that we contribute to our already overburdened landfills. You also get an end product that can be used in any yard, garden, or planter to improve your soil fertility. Let’s compost y’all!

Note from the author:  I am a current graduate student in water resources management at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. I took a Soil Resources course this year and got interested in all the beneficial effects of composting. One of my assignments for this class involved writing an opinion piece, and I wanted to write about how great and easy composting can be. Since I don’t have space for a backyard compost at my apartment, it’s been great to use a neighborhood compost pick-up and there are so many options in the Triangle! I wanted to communicate that you don’t need to be a master gardener or have a lot of space in order to reap the benefits of compost.

Thanks to Compost Now for the graphic.

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A Community Composting Story

Even the Compost is Smiling at CUCC

reprinted with permission from the author, Gary Smith of CUCC

Community United Church of Christ (CUCC) in Raleigh, NC, has been working to decrease climate change and its impact on those of low income since 2007.  Their latest effort, composting, was inspired by friends at the Church of the Nativity Episcopal Church in Raleigh who have advocated carbon sequestration and composting for the last few years.

CUCC started collecting Fellowship Hour food waste and composting it with a commercial composting service in July of 2018.  They also encouraged friends and members of CUCC to bring their compostable waste (including meat, bones and pizza boxes) to the church to be composted too.  Soon some of the families began bringing theirs, and the number of people has continued to grow. The congregation had diverted 2200 pounds of organic matter (over a ton) from the landfill by February of 2019.  This generated 550 pounds of compost and prevented the production of 290 pounds of methane.  Since methane is at least a 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, this is like removing over 7000 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere (over three tons) or not driving your car 12,500 miles!!

In 2015, CUCC installed a 9.2 kW solar array on the fellowship hall roof and are very happy that the array now supplies about ½ of the electricity for the church main building and keeps about 14,000 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere every year.

Church members were surprised and elated when they realized that their new composting effort is comparable to the solar panels in CO2 equivalent prevention – 7,000 pounds in 8 months vs 14,000 pounds in 12 months!

In the spring of 2019 composting costs increased and the church was not sure it could sustain and continue their composting program.  The Justice in a Changing Climate team (JCC) saw the impact and how much the congregation was enjoying being able to compost, so they sought to raise the funds by direct appeal and advertise the work more at the same.  They held a two-week compost education and fun event and asked 11 families to contribute an additional $120 over their pledge to keep the composting going.

During the composting Ministry Moment during the worship service on March 10th, one of the JCC members and her daughters told the congregation about the value of composting and offered them the opportunity to contribute.  After church that week and the next they also offered the opportunity at tables in the Narthex and Fellowship Hall. A short and humorous play entitled, “Ani and Aeri Go to Dinner” about anaerobic and aerobic food decomposition, was performed after church on March 17.  Then three 20 minute workshops were given focusing on the how-to’s of reducing one’s carbon footprint by composting and reusing items both at CUCC and at home.  The events were well attended and appreciated, and the congregation stepped up to provide more than the funds needed to keep the church composting for the next year!  Indeed they stopped fund raising early.

CUCC has come to appreciate how much its church family wants to learn what to do and how willing they are to follow through.  

**The NC Composting Council would like to thank author, Gary Smith, of Community United Church of Christ, for allowing us to post this story in our blog.  We offer it as a shining example of the large impact a small groups of people can have on global warming by simply diverting their kitchen waste from the landfill to a composter.  We commend CUCC for their efforts and great success.

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When It Comes to School Lunch Waste, Every Tray Counts!

Every Tray Counts is a non-profit organization that aims to take the trash out of public schools and turn it to compost.  When Sue Scope and Bing Roenigk first began Every Tray Counts (ETC) in 2013 public schools all across North Carolina were serving their lunches on polystyrene trays.  Elementary schools average 4 lbs of food waste per child per month and 100% of it was going to the landfill. With over 1,000,000 K-8 students in NC’s schools, the amount of waste being landfilled is approximately a staggering 18,000 tons in the school year for those schools alone.

Every Tray Counts began with a focus on helping individual schools to use compostable or reusable products and cut back on their lunchtime waste and now is moving whole school systems over to using compostable materials in all of their lunchrooms.  Every effort has to start with information, so their strategy is to identify the unique waste disposal capacity within the community and school and develop a program of sustainability tailored to the individual school and the district.

A waste audit measures the amount and types of waste being generated

Central to what the group has to assess is the number of meals served to understand how much compostable waste could be expected, then the distance to the nearest composting facility and the logistics of having the compostables hauled there, finally, the amount of interest in the area for running a pilot program is key.  

With this information in hand ETC begins by reviewing a school district’s current solid waste contract and helps them to best utilize services like recycling that they may already have available to them.  Cost savings on dumpster rentals and the tipping side means there are funds available to spend on compostable food trays instead of the cheaper polystyrene ones.  ETC has found they can often change a school over to compostables without affecting them financially while giving them savings on their environmental impact.

Once a school within a district has been selected and evaluated, a pilot program begins.  ETC works with the school’s administrators, custodial and kitchen staff, teachers and teaching assistants, parents and, of course, the children.  Other community members are also brought in for monitoring lunch times and special events. Schools that have completed the program are seeing a fantastic return for their efforts.  After having 100% of solid waste going to a landfill, ETC schools are diverting up to 90% of that waste to recyclers and composters.

Interest in the ETC program and its benefits has blossomed and ETC was having a hard time keeping up, so in 2018 the NC Composting Council gave ETC a grant of $2500 to facilitate the expansion of ETC’s website into an interactive information source for schools and individuals wanting to lighten their student’s environmental impact.  The grant also helped with the development of a School Kit which makes the transition to composting simple and clear. The kit provides schools with the information and basic format for assessing its own waste stream and determining the course for change. The kit changes ETC’s involvement with a school from one of implementer of the waste diversion program to advisor.  

Every Tray Counts in North Carolina is just one among many organizations in states like Colorado, Maine and Vermont. According to the EPA, Americans recovered over 23 million tons through composting in 2015. This is 0.4 pounds per person per day for composting. ETC’s work significantly improves the amount of compostable waste diverted.

All these lunch leftovers and the tray are compostable.

With all of this waste being sent to composting facilities compost manufacturing near the schools is seeing a boost as well.  For example, in one school in an average month approximately 1,647 lbs of lunchroom waste becomes 412 lbs of compost. In a landfill these organic materials would have produced 214 lbs of methane; as compost, however, when applied to garden, farm or grassland they can actually serve as a carbon sink (see NCCC’s blog post Compost Combats Global Warming, 11/25/18).

Every Tray Counts is continuing its relationship with the NC Composting Council and other like-minded organizations in an effort to expand its impact in North Carolina by developing a comprehensive composting system for schools.

“Every Tray Counts is at the intersection of public schools and solid waste.” Says Executive Director, Sue Scope, “If we can incorporate a composting program in our lunch rooms and our classrooms, we can have a tremendous impact on our children’s future.”

Julie Moore

 

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