The Composting Project is working to establish food waste composting at local schools.
Phone: (812) 331-2726
The Center for Sustainable Living is providing input into the Middleway House Food Incubator USDA grant. We hope to enable Food Works, a catering company run by Middleway House, the opportunity to recycle their food waste into worm castings and add another business to their list.
To this end the Center for Sustainable Living Zero Waste group, and the IU Sustainability Food group visited the Branchville Indiana Correctional Institute to tour their worm recycling program. Bob Campbell, head of the PLUS program, and Rex Hammond, inmate, served as our guides.
Vermicomposting at Branchville began in 1998 and is run by PLUS participants at the prison – a faith based and character based group that seemed low security risk. Working on this project might also be a reward for good behavior.
The Project was started with an initial purchase of red wiggler worms from Florida and California that has never been replenished. Worms live in plywood boxes about 4’x2’x2’ stacked like file cabinets 5 boxes high in 20 or 21 rows in a building that looks like a single-car garage complete with a garage door. The building is air-cooled in summer and heated in the winter to a constant temperature of about 70 degrees. Recycled non- or low-inked cardboard is run through a chipper for bedding, water is added to create the moist environment that worms need. One and a half pounds of dried egg shells mixed with dirt are used to provide the necessary grit used in their crop to help the worms break the food into small enough particles to be digested. About eight pounds of worms (1,300 worms/lb.) are added to each box.
Worm bedding is “fluffed” to introduce air and the worms are fed 6 lbs of food waste (no meat or dairy) from the dining halls per week. The waste is ground up with some water into a thick soup consistency called “slurry” and fed to the worms. A trough is made with the hand and the slurry is poured in and covered with the bedding. The slurry is put into the box in a rotation mode – first on the left side, then the right then the middle.
It takes 3 to 4 months for the composting process to be completed, or to “turn” one box. Box contents are dumped onto a table and the castings are skimmed off the top of the pile by hand. The worms keep moving to the bottom of the pile and the castings are continually swept off by hand until there is only a pile of worms left.
Turnings yield about 30 pounds of worm castings per box. Excess worms are used elsewhere. The box is then washed and filled with new bedding and worms and the process starts over again.
The castings are gathered and placed on cardboard in the sun to dry. After they are dry they are placed into a harvester with various sizes of screen to separate the compost by size with the finest recycled into the 1/3 acre organic garden and the more coarse (with pieces of cardboard and bits of plastic) put into the outdoor compost pile.
The garden yields approximately 250 – 300 lbs of food a week. The food is all given to the needy and the elderly (food served in the prison is outsourced).
Yearly averages since 7/22/06:
38,900 lbs of cardboard recycled
40,619 lbs of waste food
932.5 lbs of worms gained
10,000 lbs of castings
DID YOU KNOW? One cubic foot of worm castings compared to the same volume of soil – worm castings have FIVE TIMES the nitrates; THREE TIMES the phosphorous; THREE TIMES the exchangeable magnesium; ELEVEN TIMES the potash; ONE AND A HALF TIMES the Calcium. And the worm castings provide slow release of the nutrients so they don’t overwhelm your plants or damage waterways!
What kind of worm is used in a worm box?
Answer: Eisenia foetida or the “red wriggler” is the worm that doesn’t mind living cooperatively with other worms and also doesn’t make deep tunnels. You can buy these wrigglers at bait shops or ask worm-box owners to share their over-population!
If I use a wooden box to keep my worms in, how large should the air holes on the bottom be?
Answer: The holes in the bottom are not only to allow air to enter the box, but also allow excess liquid to exit the box. In order to do this effectively, it is necessary to make a hole with the very smallest bit in your drill collection. If the holes are too large the worms might escape.
My worms have eaten and digested all of the shredded paper that was in the box. Is it necessary that I provide them with more paper litter?
Answer: The worms need a supply of clean, damp shredded newspaper at all times. They do not like living in their feces. Once you remove the worm castings from one area – always fill that area with shredded newspaper that has been soaked in water and wrung out until it has the dampness of a damp sponge.
I have noticed fruit flies in my worm box.
Answer: Fruit flies are attracted to decaying fruit and vegetable matter. That is why you should ALWAYS cover the food waste that you put into your worm box with shredded newspaper. This should control the fruit flies.
How can I use my castings?
Answer: Castings can be used “as is” on your potted plants, in your garden or even to grow seeds. Worm castings are cold fertilizer – which means that they will not “burn” your plants or seedlings.
I also have a question about the worms: they are producing droppings now but there is a lot of other bugs and mold in the box as well, and also, especially in the produced earth, millions, really they are everywhere, of mini-sized white jumping things…what are those and what should I do?
Answer: The term “worm box” is a misnomer – the box actually has many organisms in the box. The worms simply are the most numerous visible members! If you are covering the food waste with the shredded paper bedding – there should be no problem with other organisms in the box – they will disappear after a time. In my box – the sow bugs seem to there all the time but others come and go. As long as there are not getting out and multiplying in your kitchen it shoud be okay. As far as the mold is concerned – that organism helps to break down the food so that the worms can eat it. Worms don’t have teeth and they need soft food.
I’m wondering about the diet we’re feeding our worms. Ours have multiplied to the point where we can feed them a lot, but I notice they seem to be eating the newspaper bedding a little faster than the vegetable scraps and peelings. I wonder if this is because we haven’t provided them with any roughage such as egg shells or sand. We don’t use eggs, so I was wondering whether coffee grounds would serve the purpose. If not, we’ll be looking for a source of sand—if, indeed, the worms need more roughage at all. What do you think?
Answer: They are eating the paper because it is soaked with the plant juices and is easier for them to eat, since it is soft and they have no teeth. The other plant waste has to break down (rot) before the worms can eat it. However, they do like coffee grounds so please do add the grounds to your box.