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Worms, our waste warriors

Special to The Times

Sharing lunch with students at the Santa Monica College cafeteria one recent afternoon are a couple hundred thousand lowlife diners that most folks would only be caught dead with. Inside a giant, hydraulically operated bin behind the kitchen, 800,000 red wiggler worms are chowing down, as they do 24 hours a day here and at an increasing number of homes and eco-leaning facilities in Los Angeles. It’s part of a makeover as dramatic as anything since a mouse got named Mickey.

Over the course of the year these waste warriors will consume 3 1/2 tons of food scraps -- watermelon rinds, egg shells, spoiled lettuce -- that would have gone to landfills and fueled methane and greenhouse gas emissions.

“They’re excellent employees. They just do their job -- eat and mate,” says Madeline Brodie, recycling coordinator at the college. They also produce droppings, or castings, that make a primo organic fertilizer, which is used around the campus.

Reaching a gloved hand into what looks like placid soil but is actually a mix of worm droppings and shredded food and cardboard, Brodie scoops up an explosion of wigglers. “They’re not solitary like earthworms,” she says, grinning, referring to the larger night crawlers most of us have in our yards. “They like working together.”

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After eons of doing the planet’s dirty work, a critter slagged as slime and vermin on a good day is finding a place in the hearts of green fans as a composting superhero. Nature’s built-in recycling program, composting breaks down organic waste through controlled decomposition -- rot, a process worms accelerate through tireless munching and excreting. Once seen as a realm of DIY dead-enders, composting is becoming cool as landfills run out of space.

“I’ll be at a Hollywood party and all of a sudden we’ll get into a riff on composting,” says Douglas E. Welch, a computer consultant and backyard composter in Van Nuys who has a blog called A Gardener’s Notebook.

“It’s not just the hippie fringe like 20 years ago. Now it’s mom and dad public,” says Keith Thomsen, program manager for L.A. County’s Smart Gardening initiative that offers composting workshops. “Composting gives people a chance to participate in an immediate solution. You’re the recycler.”

Manufacturers of garbage disposals aren’t throwing in the towel just yet, but green websites are touting “countertop compost chic” and invertebrate abodes that would appear to be new Donald T. Sterling Miracle Mile developments -- such as the multistoried Worm Tower and Worm Condo, available at composters.com. Ed Begley Jr. has teamed with Home Depot’s Eco Options program to produce an online video composting workshop. L.A. County is increasing the number of Smart Gardening centers. Worm sales at Da-Le Ranch (heafner.org), near Lake Elsinore, are booming, says owner Dave Heafner, up 15% to 20% every year for the last five. But don’t worry -- he’s still got a billion left, give or take a few million.

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There’s something rotting in local offices too, which may not be a bulletin. California’s Integrated Waste Management Board is encouraging public and private employees to bring worms and set up office compost bins. With a third of workers not leaving the office for lunch anymore, there’s plenty to scavenge. Irvine architectural firm LPA Inc. is doing its part. Designer of K-12 schools and corporate headquarters, LPA inaugurated a couple-thousand-strong worm bin in May, as well as a coffee composter. A sign above the bin reads, “Feed the Worms,” which employees do with egg shells, fruit and leftover salad.

Driving the compost surge is the fact that 30% of residential garbage is organic matter that doesn’t have to go to the landfill. Homeowners can not only get rid of the leaves, grass clippings, lettuce and fruit remnants by composting them, but also get a bonus as the junk is reconstituted into fertilizer by a cast of microbes and worms. .

“I’d wanted to do composting for a while,” says Lisa Freeman, a publicist in Mar Vista who took it up after attending a county workshop. “I was already separating out my green bin stuff. The problem is, with recycling you don’t really know what’s happening with that stuff. This is something I take from beginning to end.”

There can be hitches. Composters need to seal bins well enough to keep out pests attracted to the garbage and make sure there’s no meat or animal fat in the heap. In worm composting, if there’s more food than the worms can keep up with, you’ll smell it.

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Residential composting comes in two basic styles. The backyard compost bin breaks down leaves, grass clippings, fruit and veggie scraps, straw, wood chips and shredded paper using a mixture of damping, turning and heat. It takes a few months for the materials to break down into compost. Worm composting, or vermicomposting, focuses on food waste. All you need is paper bedding, selected food scraps (no meat, dairy, fats or animal byproducts) and litter layer worms, known as red wigglers. Worms increase the microbe count and potency of the nutrient-rich organic fertilizer produced by the process.

“See how fine this is,” says Tim Dundon, self-styled “Good Humus Man” (2doo.com), a composting pioneer, as he holds up a palm-full of what he calls “craptonite,” or worm castings, in his Altadena front yard/jungle. “They’re selling this for $6 a quart at Osh.”

At that rate, Dundon may be able to buy his own big-box store, because his nearly acre spread is a mountain of compost. The arboretum atop it -- giant ferns, palms and cactus -- is so thick you need a sickle to beat a trail through it.

“People are coming to grips with the fact that part of the solution is modifying lifestyle,” Thomsen says. “They’ve got to be part of the solution.” That can mean an occasional adventure. Long ago, Thomsen once overfed worms in his under-sink bin. “They didn’t like it. I came home and there were hundreds of worms crawling everywhere. We recommend that people keep worms outside the house for a while until they have it all worked out.”

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home@latimes.com

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For more information

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County of Los Angeles Smart Gardening program: https://ladpw.org/epd/sg/

BioCycle magazine’s www.findacomposter.com


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