From waste to resource

Vermiculture is easy. Just get some red wigglers, and transform organic waste into nutrient dense soil.

by Kaileigh Nichols

According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), if unconsumed food and its associated waste were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet. Wasting food places unnecessary stress on our waste management systems and intensifies food insecurity, earning its place as one of the top three crises of climate change.

Worms on the hand for Homemade Worm Composting. Vermicomposting is method of turning home plant based garbage and kitchen food leftovers into rich organic soil fertilizer

According to the 2021 UNEP Food Waste Index Report, it is estimated that food waste from households, retail establishments and the food service industry totals 931 million tonnes globally each year. This includes 570 million tonnes of household waste and a global average of 74 kg per capita of uneaten food each year. North America sits just below the global average at 69 kg per person.

Managing the waste we produce has never been something we have done well. Recycling programs in affluent countries are fraught with undesirable outcomes unbeknownst to the average person utilizing these programs.

For most consumers, the gap between where things are produced and where they end up is gigantic. Our expectation is that we can get whatever we want, whenever we want, and this, sadly, has long-lasting consequences for the areas of the world having to pick up after us.

We recite the mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” and we believe this is the answer to our environmental woes. However, I believe the cure lies more in the first word than the two following words

From waste to resource

When you buy a bag of apples, what happens to the parts of the fruit you don’t use? Sadly, there is no curbside green bin program for most Canadians and a lot of this waste ends up in landfill along with the rest of the garbage. We treat everything as disposable instead of thinking through the lifecycle of the things we use. I’m not saying that the green bin is the only answer, but I do think it provides a valuable shift in the way in which we view food waste.

How is food waste different from other waste? Well, unlike many kinds of plastics and other things that do not degrade within a few months, food waste, once broken down, should be seen as a valuable resource to improve the health of our soil.

Shifting our language and understanding from waste to resource will be a key component to shifting our understanding of waste.

If you’re fortunate enough to live in a city or town that has an active organic waste recycling program, you may feel these issues do not apply to you. But large-scale waste management systems are not without their own issues. Although many households do utilize these kinds of programs, people often overestimate what can be composted. This results in those resources going into the landfill.

In 2015, about 3.7 million tonnes of organic waste was generated from Ontario’s restaurants, residential units, farms and retail establishments. Sadly, nearly 60 per cent of the resources collected using green bin programs were sent to landfill instead of organic waste processing facilities. Even if the food makes it through the composting system, the resulting products are typically so full of plastics that no one wants to use them anyway.

Sadder still is that not all towns or cities in Ontario have food waste collection or recycling programs. Similarly, many families don’t have the time to learn backyard composting skills, nor is it something school curriculums tend to prioritize.

Eat this

Most of us expect the waste we produce to disappear just as fast as it arrived, but we need to change our expectations. How? First, stop buying unnecessary stuff and, second, get some red wigglers. Yes, worms!

You can easily whip together a countertop composting machine to transform your organic waste into nutrient dense soil resources. It’s called vermiculture, which uses specific kinds of worms to break down organic waste from your countertop, or wherever you store your bin.

Put simply, you can create a living machine that will eat your household organic waste and turn it into a resource.

Vermiculture is much better than backyard compost piles, which have been shown to produce more greenhouse gases than vermiculture. In 2016, the Journal of Cleaner Production compared emissions from both options, its study showing that vermiculture decreased methane emissions by 16 to 32 per cent (depending on the available moisture) when compared to typical composting methods. It also showed that vermiculture is more effective at reducing nitrogen loss, a key component of healthy soils and an element in most chemical fertilizers.

One pound of worms can convert up to half a pound of organic material per day, a process that typically takes three months to produce usable castings (worm poop).

While traditional backyard composting is still effective at diverting waste from landfills, the castings produced in vermiculture have been shown to hold more nutrients, including phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen, all of which are essential for healthy plants. Vermicompost is also an excellent source of microorganisms, micronutrients, enzymes and is able to hold these components for much longer than other composts.

The other byproduct of vermicomposting, known as worm tea, can also be used as a nutrient dense liquid fertilizer.

Another awesome attribute of worm composting is that anyone can do it! If you have space in your home to store a small organic waste bin, then you have enough room to vermicompost. As opposed to more conventional forms of composting, which require outdoor space, vermicomposting can be done in tighter confines, like condos or apartments, with no need for fancy equipment. And for those who live in the country, there is no food waste left outdoors to attract animals, including bears and coyotes.

What are you waiting for? There are many videos and articles online about how to make and maintain your very own composting machine, so hop to it and save our soils.

Kaileigh Nichols has a degree in environmental resource sciences with a specialization in restoration and rehabilitation, and a degree in digital geography and GIS (geographic information system) and has been very active in science data collection. She is also certified in the Ontario Stream Assessment Protocol and the Ontario Benthic Biomonitoring Network.