A pilot project is studying the feasibility of using worm composting in the New SUB. If it works, food scraps from various restaurants will be turned into compost used to fertilize the rooftop garden—never even leaving the building.

“Look at the size of that one! It’s huge, as big as my finger. They were tiny when we started.”

Hillary Topps, an undergrad student studying Applied Biology with a major in Plant and Soil Sciences, has just opened up a plastic bin under a sink in the kitchen of the Pendulum Restaurant in the Student Union Building. Beneath a layer of straw is a mass of decomposing food preparation scraps from the restaurant. But this isn’t just any compost bin — this one is writhing with dozens of red wriggler worms, part of a pilot project in worm-based composting (also known as vermicomposting) that Topps is leading.

“See that band?” she continues. “That means the worm is pregnant. The band will fall off in a few days and become a cocoon, and we’ll have a bunch of baby worms.”

Like the many Social, Ecological, Economic, Development Studies (SEEDS) projects now taking place on campus, the worm-composting pilot is a unique partnership between faculty (Dr. Art Bomke, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Sciences and Topps’ supervisor), staff (AMS catering workers and the AMS Sustainability Coordinator) and Campus Sustainability, which oversees SEEDS. The aim is to test the feasibility of vermicomposting in the SUB’s daily operations. If it is successful, it will be scaled up to a larger vermiculture project in the New SUB, which is still in the design phase but is set to open in the fall of 2014.

“The pilot began in January,” explains Liska Richer, Program Coordinator of SEEDS, who works for Campus Sustainability. “The worms are being cared for by AMS staff and the student, Hillary, who are monitoring every detail, from the feed they prefer and consume to reproduction rates and so on.”

From a sustainability perspective, the great advantage of worm composting is that it can take place on-site, in small bins right in the various food outlets in the New SUB. If all goes according to plan, the worm castings — the end product of the process — will be used as fertilizer in the new building’s rooftop garden. Any excess — and initial projections suggest there will be more castings than the SUB can handle — could then be passed on to other gardening projects on-campus.

“Just imagine if all our food waste in the SUB was composted on-site, and put back into the soil,” says Richer. “That would be huge success for our campus, and a first!”

“Additional phases may include a project to investigate the desirability and feasibility of creating educational and revenue-generating opportunities associated with the worm bin. We might even sell the excess worms, which can be quite profitable — two pounds of worms retail for about $80. We may also provide student-run ‘worm bin’ workshops for home use.” The City of Vancouver already runs such workshops as part of its home worm-composting program.

“The worms seem to be really enjoying squash,” says Bryan Goodman, a dishwasher in the restaurant who volunteered to look after the worms and quickly became their on-site guardian. “I check them every day, look at the soil, test the smell, the moisture levels.”

Caring for the worms involves frequent misting (spraying the bin to keep it wet), feeding and monitoring to make sure the worms are in good health. According to the literature, worms are sensitive to vibrations, so there was some concern that the Wednesday night Pit Pub events would disturb them and stop them from reproducing, but they appear to be coping fine. “There are some small ones, so they seem to be breeding,” says Goodman.

“Looking after them is a little extra work, but I don’t mind,” he adds. “It’s fun. I grew up around animals, I don’t have a problem with other living creatures.”

“Getting the pilot underway is great,” says Justin Ritchie, the AMS Sustainability Coordinator. “We’ve got the AMS on board, it’s now part of the daily routine for staff members. There are so many layers you need to get approval from: building managers, custodial staff. Most importantly we have the health inspectors on board, we would never do anything to jeopardise that.”

The next step is taking it up to scale and incorporating it in the designs for the New SUB, which are just being finalized. Fortunately the space demands aren’t that great. “It’s really important that we now know we can do it in four-foot-by-four-foot bins,” says Ritchie. “Tons of people do worm composting around the world, but knowing that our organization can do it, that is the key thing.”

One of the other issues the team has had to confront is the widespread fear of worms. “It’s really neat seeing people’s reactions,” says Goodman. “Some are fine, others go ‘Ah!,’ they just don’t want to hear about it. I tell them, come on, these things don’t bite. They’ve got no teeth!”

Dr. Art Bomke, the academic lead on the project, has an interesting take on the subject.

“The history of UBC includes livestock — cattle, poultry, horses — on the main part of campus,” he says. “Hillary Topps’ SEEDS project points the way for a return to this tradition — the only difference is that this time we will be relying on earthworms as a class of livestock that can help to decompose food wastes and convert them to a useful product for soil improvement. Additionally, the worms will reduce the volume of waste needing more expensive processing or disposal.”