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Digging Up a Solution for Landfill Woes : Environment: An Escondido man is touting worms to help curb the rising tide of trash. He says the creatures could gobble up 10,000 tons of waste a year.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Call it Wayne Orr’s modest proposal.

As San Diego County tilts toward disaster, its trash bins brimming and its landfills nearly full, Orr, a 76-year-old great-grandfather from Escondido, thinks he has come up with a partial solution: worms.

The plan is simple. Instead of tossing biodegradable trash, yard clippings and sewage sludge into a hole in the ground, Orr says, municipalities would take it to him. He’d compost it, and then use some of the compost to feed 1 1/2 tons of his favorite breed: Chinese reds. Selling worms for bait would help finance the composting operation. And the rich manure they leave behind, well, that would be gravy.

“It’s like taking apples and making apple butter,” said Orr, who discovered how lucrative it could be to sell worm manure--or castings--in the 1970s, when he co-owned one of the biggest worm-breeding farms in Southern California. “You turn the undesirable material into desirable material . . . and you don’t fill up the landfill.”

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It may sound weird--and definitely a little slimy. But there are those who say vermicultural brainstorms like Orr’s, which he had printed under the weighty title “A Proposal to Demonstrate the Utilization of Biological Processes for the Conversion of Organic Wastes to Useful Products,” are the hope of the future.

“America is going to have to wake up to the fact that we are committing humus-ide--killing off the organics in the soil,” said Trisha Ferrand, a San Diego resident who is co-founder of a national group called the Coalition for Recyclable Waste. By providing an essential fertilizer, she says, an industrious composter can treat trash like a cash crop. “You’re cultivating soil instead of soybeans.”

And, in times like these, county officials admit they get excited about almost any idea that keeps garbage out of the ground. Working under a 1987 mandate from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors that called for a 30% reduction in landfill-bound waste by 1992, the Department of Public Works has instituted a $3.5-million grant program to encourage trash-diversion strategies.

According to Richard Anthony, the county’s principal solid-waste program manager, the $1 million distributed each year has gone mostly to promote curbside recycling. But he said the success of the program depends in part upon diversity.

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“There is not one way to do it. You can’t just recycle, because not everything can be recycled. You can’t just stop using (the products that create trash), because that’s not practical. You can’t burn it all, because there are other impacts,” said Anthony, who called the use of worms “a very important part of an integrated waste-management system.”

“We would certainly entertain and evaluate proposals that deal with vermicomposting,” he said when told of Orr’s plan to process about 10,000 tons of material in his first year of operation. “It took 2 million of us to figure out how to make all this garbage. It may take 2 million ways to take care of it all.”

Orr is not the first in the county to propose using either compost or worms to environmental advantage. The Fallbrook Sanitation District, for example, has used worms to process sewage sludge for years--funded in part by county grant money. And the city of Oceanside plans to begin building a composting tunnel for its sludge late next year.

What sets Orr apart--aside from his bib overalls and his vast knowledge of worms’ sex lives and eating habits--is that, in addition to sludge, he wants to feed his worms trash. Cardboard boxes. Newspaper. Orange peels and egg shells. Cow pies from local dairies and any other kind of manure the San Diego Wild Animal Park would care to offer. Anything organic.

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Even without teeth, he says, worms eat half their body weight every 24 hours. Within a few years, he predicts, an operation that can put that appetite to use could leave landfills wanting. When combined with diligent recycling efforts, composting and vermiculture centers could divert up to 75% of the county’s waste stream, Orr estimates.

Orr’s plan promises other benefits as well, such as water conservation. Compost and worm castings increase the soil’s ability to retain moisture, making it possible to irrigate less frequently. And, if Orr has his way, San Diegans would abandon their garbage disposals--saving their wet garbage for him and, in the process, saving the water they use to flush debris down the drain.

If that isn’t enough, Orr dreams of creating a living laboratory to test his product--75 acres of trees, vines and row crops where he could experiment with what the worms leave behind.

Cliff Humphrey, the director of solid-waste management services at Dames & Moore, a Los Angeles-based engineering firm, believes Orr is onto something. Especially in light of a recent state mandate requiring a 50% reduction of wastes land-filled by the year 2000, he said, plans like Orr’s deserve more attention.

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“There’s no doubt that what he’s talking about is workable and should be done at least at a pilot level,” Humphrey said, explaining what prompted him to donate his time “running political interference” for Orr--advising him how best to approach potential funders and, eventually, how to select a site and to seek required permits.

According to Humphrey, organic debris constitutes at least a third of the materials that fill California’s landfills, so if Orr can get the money--he estimates he needs about $250,000 to design and construct a 100-acre pilot operation--he won’t have to worry about running out of raw materials.

But the process isn’t completely worry-free. As with any trash dump, finding a site can be tricky--before composting, garbage smells, and few people want such an odoriferous neighbor (Orr hopes to find a North County site near the nursery owners, farmers and dairymen who would likely be his best customers--and sources of manure).

In addition, vermicomposters must be selective, accepting only raw waste that is not contaminated with heavy metals or pesticides.

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“If a bunch of people threw out pesticide waste with their yard waste, would the worms die?” Anthony asked, pointing out the biggest vulnerability in any vermicomposting plan. “Here goes all your little nitrate generators that are going to make all this wonderful compost, and they become victims of the waste itself. That would be awful.”

Ferrand, of the Coalition for Recyclable Waste, agreed that impure waste is the biggest impediment to large-scale composting ventures.

“Visionaries who say that the waste stream can be composted need to qualify that by explaining the rest of the vision: We need to clean up the waste stream,” said Ferrand, who said she believes that, within the next decade, labeling laws and mandatory deposit-return systems for household hazardous waste will help accomplish that goal.

In the meantime, Orr keeps pushing to get his earthy idea off the ground. Through a friend, a retired San Diego County Department of Agriculture environmental deputy, he has made the Palomar-Ramona-Julian Resource Conservation District board aware of his ambitions, and has received positive feedback.

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“The board members thought it was a good idea and wanted to look into it further,” said Tom Escher, who is grant administrator for the district, which is the offspring of congressional action in the 1930s to help farmers pull out of the Depression.

Orr hopes that, after the board has a chance to study his proposal, its members will judge it worthy of their help--particularly in publicizing his plan and seeking funding. Then there’s the county grant application to prepare--the deadline, Anthony said, will be sometime in February or March.

For now, Orr can only dream of the plump little creatures whose potential he hopes to tap.

“I don’t have the worms yet,” he said. “But maybe, with a little time, I will.”

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