Wiggler Whittles Garbage Bills

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Eagle Tribune Online. By Tim Wacker

LOWELL- With her portable bin of rotting food in hand, Tina Kline has been spreading the word around the Merrimack Valley about red wigglers.

Little more than fish bait a few years back, the red wiggler is a worm with a voracious appetite that may revolutionize the world of waste disposal. At the bottom of Kline's bin, red wigglers are working their magic turning everyday yard and kitchen waste into the richest soil money can buy, all at little or no cost.

"Basically, I've got worms eating my garbage," said Kline, a North Andover resident.

That's pretty much what worms do. They work their way through the earth, eating what's in their path and leaving fertilizer in their wake.

However, Kline, working with the University of Massachusetts, is putting red wigglers to work in a more lucrative application of this process. They are getting red wigglers to eat what people normally pay to throw away. The worms also leave behind what people normally pay to spread around their gardens.

"This is top-grade, top-of-the line loam," said Tony Koumantzelis, who works in the university's office of environmental safety and management. "We're not filling up landfills here and we're producing valuable compost."

For the past three years, UMass Lowell has been working on a grander version of what Kline has been talking up as chairman of the North Andover Solid Waste Advisory Committee. In a remote campus corner parking lot, Koumantzelis and other campus workers have dumped cafeteria food scraps and campus landscape waste into what's been affectionately dubbed the Wormcycler.

The yard and kitchen waste is laid out inside a plastic shrouded building with metal ribs much like a greenhouse. There the red wigglers go to work turning what was once onion skins and cantaloupe rinds into a valuable resource that, strategically tilled into your backyard garden, can grow many more of the same.

"During the summer there are a lot of corn cobs and corn husks. A lot of this stuff gets thrown away," said Kline. "Food waste can make up 30 percent of the waste stream."

That could mean cutting your garbage bill by 30 percent if the Wormcycler can be made to work in your back yard. And it can put a dent in your gardening bill or your business's bottom line.

The Wormcycler takes composting a step further. Once the debris has rotted to where it could make good mulch, it's added to a pile writhing with red wigglers, which turn mulch into rich, dark earth.

This process is more technically called vermicomposting, and whether it's in your back yard or office parking lot, it turns garbage into black gold.

Although UMass may own the name, smaller versions of Wormcyclers can be built in your back yard without any patent problems. All you need is a plastic composting bin -- North Andover Town Hall sells them for $20 -- and a handful of worms, preferably red wigglers.

The university-run Center for Family, Work and Community has loftier goals for the Wormcycler. They hope to take it from college classroom project to enviro-friendly business strategy.

Project manager David Turcotte and center staffer Julie Villareal are hoping to pitch the Wormcycler to businesses throughout the Merrimack Valley, using the parking lot prototype.

Right now UMass delivers abut 200 to 300 pounds of kitchen waste per week to the pile that's growing alongside the Wormcycler And that's about all the oversized shed can handle.

But there is no reason a similar shed can't be set up at any business that has a cafeteria and a few dozen acres of landscaping. UMass also puts recycled newsprint into its Wormcycler.

"People associate composting with garbage and coffee grounds and yucky stuff like that," Turcotte said. "But we're not talking about hazardous waste here. We're talking about a material resource."

Taken on a commercial scale, vermicomposting is a little more complicated than dumping dinner scraps in the back yard. Only food items left over from meal preparation, such as carrot tops and melon rinds -- called pre-consumer food waste -- is used.

Grass clipping, leaves and even certain shredded paper and cardboard can be added. Eventually the worms do the rest. Various other processes Turcotte and Villareal are expert in can speed the process, and they urge calling the center to find out more.

"Composting is like brewing beer," said Turcotte. "You have to do it the right way to get the right product."