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UMass Lowell Opens a New Can of Worms

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By REBECCA PIRO

LOWELL- The newest residence hall at UMass Lowell is only 44 feet long and 15 feet wide, but thousands of occupants call it home.

Welcome to the Wormcycler, a small greenhouse built at the edge of a South Campus parking lot off Broadway. These inhabitants don't go to class or even study. Still, students shouldn't write off their new neighbors just yet, as they have more in common than a first slimy encounter might reveal.

These worms love to eat.

Environmentalists from the university's Center for Family, Work and Community opened the Wormcycler last month as an expansion of the small composting site that began there last year. Groundskeepers at the school have used the spot to dump a portion of the university's yard and food waste, where it slowly decomposes.

Now, red wiggler worms embedded in two rows of dirt inside the greenhouse on site will step up the composting process by constantly eating leaves and food waste that workers feed them, shovelful by shovelful, and turning it into dirt.

The end result? Lots of natural loam the university can use for landscaping, and fewer dollars the university must spend carting the leaf and food waste away.

'It's worm manure,' said Julie Villareal, assistant program manager at the center.

Aside from the practical and money-saving benefits, the Wormcycler and composting center is a place where students can watch decomposition in action and learn about recycling. The greenhouse is also a lesson in staying power, as the worms are relying on water collected from rain gutters, rather than plumbing, and their human caretakers are hoping to install solar panels for heat in the winter.

Tony Koumantzelis, the university's recycling manager, said he dumps about 800 pounds of food into the leaf pile outside the greenhouse per week.

'The tomato rinds, the day-old bagels that never got eaten, they all go in,' he said.

Sure, it takes a long time before that bagel is completely composted. But high temperatures inside the composting piles sometimes a 100-degree difference proves that chemical reactions are happening.

And if you do it right, the stink factor is practically nil. Turning the piles over with a pitchfork now and then ensures that oxygen circulates through the material and nearly eliminates the smell.

Now that the worms have arrived, Koumantzelis will take a few shovelfuls of partially decomposed material from the leaf pile every so often and add them to the worms' feast inside the greenhouse.

It does take time to decompose waste. The university does not have any room to expand the greenhouse, so the environmentalists are limited as to how much waste they can hope to compost. Villareal hopes that the two 15-foot long rows of dirt and worms, which stand about 2 feet high, will have completely decomposed into rich dirt by spring.

Still, these environmentalists have visions of recycling nearly all of the university's yard and food waste, and cutting thousands of dollars from the university's budget, by saving on removing the waste and not paying for loam.

John Murphy, superintendent of grounds, spends between $20,000 and $30,000 per year to haul away leaves to a landfill some towns away. He has already saved about $2,000 this year just by dumping a few truckloads of leaves at the composting site.

Of course, that kind of expansion would take time and money. The university has used all of the $30,800 grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs for the project.

'I would say it's definitely not next year,' said David Turcotte, the center's project manager.

Koumantzelis is hoping to educate students about the process by installing planters around campus and filling them with the loam and plants.

'It's to show people that it's really not that hard,' he said. 'What was garbage last year is high-quality loam now.'