Last week, I explained how to build a vermicomposting system, using red worms to re-purpose organic material and kitchen scraps. The benefits of this type of natural composting and upcycling are obvious. Well, not so fast. It’s only obvious if you know what upcycling is. In the universe of ‘living an organic lifestyle’, upcycling is KING. So, what is it?
“Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value,” according to Wikipedia. It’s different than recycling, which is akin to re-using or incorporating used materials in part, or in entirety, to make similar or like materials. Cardboard to cardboard; glass to glass; plastic to plastic.
Since vermicomposting is an organic process whereby earthworms feed on worthless decomposed materials to produce valuable nutrient-rich soil amendments, it’s a textbook example of upcycling. Let’s break it down (pun intended): Kitchen, food and ingredient scraps are garbage that fill landfills and use precious water to move through our sewer system. Instead, we divert the waste to the worms where they consume it and excrete it into nutrient-rich soil amendments that improve the soil condition that we use to plant more crops and repeat the process.
Let the upcycling begin!
LIFE CYCLE OF A WORM BIN
EACH WEEK, WE’LL JOURNAL THE PROGRESS OF A WORM BIN, FROM DAY 1 UNTIL THE DAY WE HARVEST THE NUTRIENT-RICH WORM CASTINGS. (Disclaimer: No worms were harmed in the making of this story)
1 POUND of Red Worms
When I open the lid, peel back the cardboard and look inside, it may not look like much is happening, but I can assure you the worms are hard at work. As you can see from the picture below, the red worms have already reduced the overall volume of the worm bin by more than 50%.
And here is the amazing part. This past week, I’ve added about 2 pounds of kitchen waste to the bin:
7 egg shells
2 coffee grind dumps
10 immature carrots from my garden
4 uneaten nectarines
1 handful of onion peels and some tomato scraps
Odor and Appearance
Notice the distinct absence of recognizable food scraps. They’re in there, but they’re buried. If I peel away the top layer of bedding, you would see some mushy tomato bits and soggy nectarines. The egg shells, onions and carrots are completely gone. Most of the celery and all of the radishes from the initial feeding are also gone. If this picture had smell-o-vision, you could smell wet newspaper and coffee. That’s it. No objectionable odors, at all. I promise. The sides of the bin, and the lid were sweating with condensation when I first opened the bin, and the cardboard cover is about 10% decomposed. After one particularly hot day, I had to add about a 1/2 cup of water back into the bin to rehydrate it. Since then, it’s micro-climate has taken hold and it seems to be doing well on its own.
Each morning, when I first pop the lid to check on my little guys, two or three gnats or fruit flies escape the bin. This neither surprises nor bothers me. It’s a natural, organic process, after all. Things are decomposing inside. And this morning I found a tiny spider that got in through one of the air holes. Again, no problem. If you keep your worm bin indoors in a cupboard, under the sink or in the garage, you probably won’t attract pests or bugs under normal circumstances. If your bin’s chemistry gets out of balance, and you give it a reason, then you might attract unwanted pests. What I watch for, more than anything, is rodent activity or an infiltration of mites.
The temperature inside the bin is approximately 80 degrees, a little warmer than they like. Optimal temperatures for a thriving worm bin are between 55 – 77 degrees F. I had to move the bin from spot-to-spot in the backyard until I found a place shady enough to keep the bin temperature cool. The temperature in Central California reached the high 90’s this week, so I had to use trial and error until I found a good spot in the yard.
In Week #1, the Best Practice was to place a fitted piece of cardboard over the bedding to keep pests/flies away, and preserve the moisture content.
This week, my Best Practice is to check the bin once-a-day, every day, for the whole week, to ensure the moisture and biology of the bin are developing on track. Make adjustments where needed. For example, this week I moved the bin from spot-to-spot in the yard until I found a suitable location where the worms wouldn’t overheat, and I added a little water once after a particularly hot day.
INVESTMENT in TIME
Week 1: Project buildout – 1 hour
Week 2: Care and maintenance – 20 minutes (includes 5 minutes to play with the spider)
COST of MATERIALS
Week 1: $20 total investment for worms and supplies
Week 2: $0
Editor's note: Photo, courtesy C. Douros