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Vermicomposting project goes commercial

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By VANESSA HUGHES Sun Staff

LOWELL After two years of experimenting with more than 10,000 earthworms, the University of Massachusetts Lowell is ready to spin off a commercial venture using 'Red Wigglers' to create recycled compost.

The worm project, called the Lowell Community Partnership for a Food Waste Composting Enterprise, uses a technique called vermicomposting to decompose such trash as food and yard waste and create natural fertilizer in the process.

Instead of hauling organic waste off to a landfill, food scraps, leaves and even cardboard are mixed with small worms called Red Wigglers. The worms (known by their Latin name as Eisenia Foetida) feast on the organic waste and excrete an odorless, highly nitrous compost which provides environmentally-friendly fertilizer.

The vermicomposting project has been one of the university's more eccentric ventures. But it's catching on, said Project Manager David Turcotte. Now UMass Lowell wants to put its worms to work for the city, local businesses and farmers.

'Generally, people have a negative image of composting because they equate compost with trash,' Turcotte said. 'But now we can turn something we have that is a cost to municipalities into something that is productive.'

The university business, to be launched as Lowell Loam Ltd., will recycle organic waste and sell the worm-created compost as an alternative to chemical fertilizers. Lowell Loam (loam is topsoil) also plans to sell worm-composting kits and offer members of its worm work force for sale as bait.

The team is currently working on its business plan, to be finished in about a month, when it will also seek additional financing. The project is backed by the Chelsea Center for Recycling & Economic Development, funding from the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and contributions from City Soil & Greenhouse Co. and UMass Lowell.

Local worm composting is also supported by Mayor Rita Mercier, who attended a recent presentation of the project at the Wannalancit Mill.

Mercier said the city needs to beef up its recycling and consider innovative ways, such as vermicomposting, to reduce expenses affiliated with trash collection and take care of the environment.

'We need to do whatever we can to help. I know this is a bizarre way, but it is a way. Every little bit helps,' she said.

In Lowell alone, about 3,000 tons of yard waste, including grass clippings and leaves, is hauled off to a landfill in Woburn every year, costing the city around $20,000, said Bruce Fulford, a Lowell Loam project consultant.

Instead of hauling organic garbage away, the city could send it to Lowell Loam, which would turn it into a revenue-generating product. The city could also use the compost produced as an alternative to chemical fertilizers, which pose pollution dangers, especially used near rivers and canals.

The company will target supermarkets, restaurants, prisons, schools and hospitals as food-waste generators and hopes to sell its compost to such customers as farmers, municipalities and garden stores.

Fulford said the compost created by Red Wigglers can be sold for between $15 and $50 per cubic yard and provides a higher quality fertilizer compared to traditional compost. The advantage is that worm compost is broken down more than traditional fertilizers so nutrients are available to plants more rapidly, he said.

The business will start in an enclosed educational and demonstration site to be constructed in a parking lot at UMass Lowell's south campus. Project participants hope to then expand Lowell Loam to other sites, such as local farms. The venture would create about six full-time jobs, and aims to produce about 1,000 tons of compost annually to start.

'Big things often start small. In this case, very small,' Fulford said.

The worm-composting team, managed by UMass Lowell's Center for Family Work & Community, has its first food waste generator in Aramark, the food services company used by the university. They are working on marketing strategies and have trademarked a logo: a cartoon worm inside a triangular recycling symbol, which is called a wormcycle.

Gina McCarthy, assistant secretary of the state Office of Environmental Affairs, said the composting project and future business are credits to the community and to the university. She said about 10 percent of all trash put out for collection on curbs across the country is organic and could be naturally decomposed rather than dumped into landfills or pollution-producing incinerators.