I had always assumed that food scraps were the best kind of trash because food is biodegradable. I figured my old banana peels would decompose in the landfill a heck of a lot faster than the wrapper on my granola bar. Perhaps. But here is something I didn’t take into account. For food scraps to decompose in the normal way, they need oxygen. And one thing you do not get in a landfill is a steady flow of oxygen. Instead, food scraps simply get buried under more and more stuff causing them to petrify. Apparently, all the food scraps I have tossed out are fossilized in my regional landfill. Dang.
One alternative to petrified food scraps is a food scrap recycling program. Many communities now offer this service in which they pick up the food scraps you collect in a little pail and deliver them to a compost center instead of a landfill. Composted food decomposes and leaves behind a potent fertilizer that is either sold or given away to members of the community. If you are lucky enough to live in a community that offers food scrap recycling, I highly encourage you to participate.
According to StopWaste.org, food scraps make up 35% of the waste sent to landfills from my county of Alameda. We have a food scrap recycling program that aims to reduce this food waste. Unfortunately, my housing community is not currently participating in the program so I have to find another way to deal with my food scraps.
One option, of course, it to build myself a compost pile. But frankly, composting sounds hard. I don’t have a lot of time to devote to this project, and compost bins seem to need a lot of attention. They have to be mixed and tended to properly or they smell bad. I know composting is an unqualified good thing for the environment, but I’m just not ready to be a composter.
While searching for a better food scrap solution, a good friend of mine invited my husband and I to attend a workshop on worm composting. We were not particularly enthusiastic about spending a Saturday afternoon learning about worms and dirt and rotting food, but somehow she convinced us to attend. The worm composting workshop, put on by StopWaste.org as part of their Bay-friendly program, opened my eyes to a different kind of composting.
Here’s how it works: Red worms that live in a box eat all of your food scraps. By wriggling through the box and munching on the rotting food, they take care of all the chores you would need to do to maintain a regular compost pile. At the workshop, we learned how to make a worm bin and what kinds of foods you can compost with worms. The instructor also pointed out that, while food scrap recycling is clearly better than throwing food scraps in the trash, it does require transportation, fuel, and other costs that would be avoided if people simply composted their own food scraps.
Since adopting an ethical diet of mainly whole foods and lots of vegetables, my household now creates a LOT of food scraps that these worms would love to eat! And they eat coffee grinds. My husband and I are daily coffee brewers, and we both perked up (no pun intended) at the thought of converting our coffee waste into a gardening resource. You see, in addition to eating up all the food scraps, the worms produce fertilizer that can be used in the garden. It sounds like such a nice, waste-free, closed-loop system!
Despite the great workshop, and my nagging guilt over petrified food, we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to start a worm bin. However, the friends who invited us decided to take on the challenge. We visited their worm bin shortly after, and it was pretty amazing. When they opened it up, you could see the worms wriggling around, and a lot of partially eaten old food. And yet, there was no smell! None! I have been bugging them about the bin ever since – asking them how much time it takes and how much the worms eat and if they’ve had any problems. All of my inquiries are met with the same basic response: raising worms is easy.
My friends started with a small bin but have since moved to a larger system (that's it on the right) because they produce so much food for the worms. That means they have a spare. So today, we picked up our new worm bin complete with some worms from our friends’ active bin. To construct the bin, our friends bought a standard plastic tub and drilled tiny holes around the side of the tub and on the lid. Then we added coconut husk, which we bought at a home and garden store, to the bottom of the bin and enough water to wet down the coconut (a few cups). We dropped in two handfuls of worms and dirt from our friends’ current bin, and topped them with some shredded newspaper. Finally, we added a large piece of damp cardboard on top, closed the lid, and off we went!
Our friends recommended feeding the worms about one cup of food scraps per week based on the size of the bin. They also suggested we leave the food out for a couple of days to make it easier for our worms to eat. Uncooked scraps of vegetables and non-citrus fruits are best for the worms. Meat and animal fats are not good for them and tend to rot in a particularly smelly way. I think we will easily hit our one cup per week limit using just the scraps from our dinner preparation - or maybe just our coffee grinds!
As far as caring for the worms, we need to make sure the bin doesn’t get too much light and isn’t exposed to extreme heat or cold. We decided to keep our worm bin in the garage on a high shelf to keep it away from sunlight and bugs. We also have to make sure our bin retains some moisture. If too much liquid accrues at the bottom of the bin, we will need to drain it; otherwise the worms can drown! Luckily, the liquid is great fertilizer. Worm tea, as it’s called, is five parts water to one part worm bin juice.
I’m still nervous, but my husband seems really excited. Tonight we are making a vegetable stew, so we will have lots of scraps to start the worms off with. Hopefully, we will be successful worm parents, help fight waste, and generate awesome fertilizer!
For more information on how you can start a worm bin, check out these directions from StopWaste.org. This fun and funky video from Freshtopia also goes over the basics of worm composting: