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Opinion

Composter reveals dirty secret

Kirsten Blake

October 2, 2009

Dirty little secrets. Everyone has them. I’ve been contemplating getting my dirty secret out of the closet for a long time, but I’ve decided the closet is the best place for my dirt. Well, it’s compost really.

I’m a closet composter. In technical terms, a vermicomposter.

Vermicomposting is, in simple terms, keeping pet worms in a box with shredded newspaper and feeding them banana peels. Like other types of composting, the idea is to recycle food waste into usable material and keep scraps out of landfills.

In landfills, food waste undergoes anaerobic decomposition (because it decomposes buried beneath all our other junk without oxygen) and pro- duces methane gas. If you thought carbon dioxide was a bad green- house gas, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, methane is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide and 34 percent of all methane emissions in the United State comes from landfills.

Not only does composting keep waste out of landfills, it creates a fabulous, non-synthetic fertilizer. In a worm composting system, worms eat decaying organic material and excrete what is called worm castings, humus or manure (all very polite names for worm shit.)

Worm casting can do wonders for plants by adding nutrients, and because of the properties of the worm’s mucus, castings improve the soil’s capacity to hold water. Warning: worm castings are NOT dirt. It’s poop. Most plants can’t survive being planted in pure fertilizer so it’s best to mix castings and soil with a ratio of no more than one part castings to three parts soil.

Because worm bins are small and versatile enough to be kept under a kitchen sink or in a closet, vermicomposting has become a viable option for many apartment dwellers who may not have access to a yard or a composting facility. Vermicompost systems can also be very large, shed-sized commercial operations.

Contrary to popular belief, a properly maintained a worm bin doesn’t smell like rotting food. If it did, I would know and I would by no means keep my own bin in my closet.

Worm composting systems need only a few things to be successful. The number one thing is a bin, such as a plastic Rubbermaid container, preferably dark colored.

Another crucial piece a vermicompost system needs is worms. Believe it or not, there is a large difference in worms. Regular earthworms found in garden soils don’t do well in small spaces like a plastic bin. They get over crowded and don’t actually eat that much organic material. The most popular composting worms are Eisenia foetida, aka red wigglers. These special worms are really good at eating rotting food (about half their body weight in one day), like crowded places and love to make babies.

Worms need some form of bed- ding, such as shredded newspaper or cardboard (which they will eat) and they also need food. Worms love things like bananas and coffee grounds, but don’t eat meat, oils, or anything with salt.

The tricky part about food is only giving the worms as much as they can eat at a time. If worms are overwhelmed with food, or their home gets too wet or dry things start to smell, or the worms start to die. Keeping a worm bin is all about bal- ance, but it’s easy enough to figure out.

In a couple months, a worm bin will have a harvestable amount of castings. The uses are endless. Castings can be added to potted plants, vegetable gardens, lawns, given as gifts to gardening friends or sold. The worms themselves can be used to feed turtles, other pets or used as fishing bait.

Vermicompost is my method of choice, but whether it’s tossed in the woods, composted in the back yard or in a worm bin, food waste has no right rotting and creating methane in landfills. By encouraging compost- ing in any form among our friends, families, local restaurants, grocery stores, and cafeterias we can help the earth be a little greener.

Kirsten Blake is an alumna of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.