The University Record, March 4, 2002

U-M uses worms to make compost

By Judy Steeh
News and Information Services

Worms. Some people hate them, but fish and gardeners love them. Now, the crawly critters are becoming increasingly popular with those who care about the tons of waste we’re dumping into landfills every day.

That’s why Sarah Archer, coordinator of waste management and recycling services, jumped at the chance to establish a pilot vermicomposting (composting with worms) project at the Dean Road facility of the Department of Waste Management. “We already send kitchen waste, like potato peels, from five residence halls and Pierpont Commons to the Ann Arbor composting facility. We’re just redirecting some of that waste to our worm bin,” Archer said.

While Archer has been interested in vermi-composting for a long time, the project actually took off when Jason Smerdon, a doctoral candidate in the Applied Physics Program, joined with other interested students and wrote a proposal in April, 2001.

“In 1998 the United States generated 220 million tons of municipal solid waste, and almost 23 percent of that waste was material that could have been recycled as compost,” Smerdon said. “As landfill space becomes more scarce and as runoff from landfills becomes more of a problem, communities across the nation are going to need to find ways to convert significant parts of their waste to compost. Worms may not be the complete answer, but they certainly can contribute to the solution.”

The University’s pilot began last October. The worm bin, a custom-built 6-by-8-foot box, was set up and stocked with 50 pounds of composting worms. Snug in their cozy home, under a layer of paper to maintain the right balance of nitrogen and carbon, and with a temperature maintained at a comfortable 60–65 degrees Fahrenheit, the worms munch on the kitchen waste provided by Smerdon and produce vermicompost, which Archer says, the Grounds Department will make good use of next spring.

At the end of the pilot project Archer and Smerdon will harvest the first compost and develop an analysis of the project. “Ease of use is going to be a key factor,” she says. “We need to calculate just how much labor and time would be required for maintenance on a permanent basis, and obviously we can’t add significantly to the existing work load.” Smerdon also plans to present the results of the project at the Michigan Recycling Coalition Conference in May 2002.

The U-M recycling program recently received national recognition from the National Recycling Coalition as the Outstanding School Program for 2001. For more information on this award-winning program, visit the Web at www.recycle.umich.edu or contact Sarah Archer, (734) 764-1601 or smarcher@umich.edu.