Worm Bins Turn Kitchen Scraps Into Compost

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As for odors, "there is a bit of an earthy smell," Appelhof concedes. "But when people see a well-functioning system, they are amazed at how little odor there is." (Coffee grounds and fruit and vegetable peels left in a regular trash can for several days typically smell worse, Appelhoff said.)

Not surprisingly, kids are often fond of the process and undaunted by either slime or smell. Educational outreach brings worm composting to classrooms. Appelhof estimates that nearly four million children have been introduced to worm composting through her classroom book, Worms Eat Our Garbage.

"Vermicomposting is something that kids can do. Most 18-month-olds can understand what's going on," Appelhof said. "Kids feel good [about it] because they really are doing something positive for the environment. It delights me to see them get so excited about worms."

Worms in the City

Backyard composting is easy to do, but only if you have the green space, which is why worm bins have become a popular alternative for urban dwellers.

For well over a decade the city government of Vancouver, British Columbia, has funded a worm-composting program run by City Farmer.

"I always joke that we have the largest worm program in the universe," said Michael Levenston, City Farmer's director.

Each Saturday 25 people interested in worm composting attend a one-hour workshop in City Farmer's demo garden. There, they learn how to care for and manage their worm charges. Participants leave with a bin, bedding, about a pound (half a kilogram) of red wiggler worms, and instruction books—all that's needed to put their worms to work.

"The amazing thing for us is that worms hold such an interest for the public," Levenston said. "When I watch people from all walks of life taking part in the workshops and then leave with a complete setup, it's pretty stunning. We never have a problem filling the classes. In fact, we have a waiting list."

To date the program has distributed about 3,500 worm composting bins. Each bin keeps about 130 pounds (60 kilograms) of organic waste out of city landfills each year.

Levenston says that, in addition to such tangible benefits, an entire municipal and provincial mindset of reducing waste is promoted—along with the growth of the program. "The worms are a flagship. They get people involved in trying to keep landfills smaller," he said.

Levenston recalls that, years ago, talking to the public about worm compositing "felt like I was hawking a Veg-o-Matic or something. But it's become pretty status quo to compost with a worm bin here."

These days the Vancouver program has become so widespread that it has spawned an unusual service—a compost hot line.

Worm Hot Line

Hot line operator Spring Gillard is the city's source for help on worm bins and other composting conundrums.

During 14 years on the job, she's fielded calls ranging from questions on worm sexual habits to reports of mysterious worm "wranglers"—enough material to fill a book. So that's what she did, having recently penned her Diary of a Compost Hotline Operator.

Gillard said she sometimes deals with hot line callers who are "in a panic" because their worms have escaped. "We have to talk them through this crisis and try to calm them down," she said.

Unearthing the goings on in a worm bin requires detective work, Gillard said. If your worms are "trying to escape, they are trying to tell you something," she said.

Most worms settle in nicely, and Gillard reports that most owners develop a bond with their resident trash-eaters—some perhaps a bit too much.

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