By Maggie Chen
As the seasons shift and the temperatures begin to cool, we begin to prepare ourselves for the season of fright! And what is more frightening than spooky, scary skeletons nestled in dark soil with wriggly worms? While worms and decomposing skeletons are often referenced under a gory and scary Halloween theme, we can shift this narrative by giving some love and appreciation to all the wonders and work that worms do in the mitigation of climate change impacts. A wonderful way to utilize worms is through vermicomposting! Vermicomposting is the process of layering human food waste, shredded paper, soil, and incorporating red worms to aid in the process of making nutritious fertilizer for your garden! Additionally, vermicomposting as a green initiative used in continued education and community engagement can expand the way we mitigate the effects of climate change going forward through vermicomposting.
In the book Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhof and Joanne Olszewski, vermicomposting can be referenced as a “home vermicomposting system” or more simply a “worm bin.” This system is sophisticated and composed of five interdependent aspects: a physical structure (a box or plastic container), biological organisms(the worms and their accompanying organisms), a controlled environment (referring to the temperature, air flow, soil acidity, and moisture), maintenance procedures (bin preparation, food waste process, separating the worms from the casting, etc), and production procedures (using the worm casting/manure in the final stages of vermicomposting cycle).
Worm casting is the final product of worm digestion and can be simply known as worm manure. It is rich in organic matter and beneficial microorganisms that produce and aid your garden. Research conducted by Professor Arancon from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo has shown that utilizing earthworm soil amendments increases the growth, flowering, and yield of plants such as bell peppers, strawberries, and grapes. Incorporating soil amendments from vermicomposting yields benefits like increasing soil microbes which is linked to suppressing plant disease, improving overall soil health, and improving plant growth. Sustainable gardening is practiced when no-cost or low-cost amendments such as the use of worm casting from vermicomposting is incorporated.
Worms play this integral role in the vermicomposting process and also in mitigating the effects of climate change. Landfill gas (LFG) is emitted as a natural byproduct of organic material decomposition, such as food waste decomposing in landfills. Around 50 percent of LFG is methane, a greenhouse gas that traps in heat in the atmosphere 25 times more than carbon dioxide. In the past two hundred years after the Industrial Revolution, methane concentrations within the atmosphere have more than doubled due in large part to anthropogenic human-related activities. Around 50 percent of LFG released from landfills is carbon dioxide and the rest is a small percentage of non-methane organic compounds. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere for a much shorter time in contrast to carbon dioxide but both are released in the atmosphere in large amounts from varying sources – one of which is organic material decomposition from landfills. By reducing the amount of organic material (food waste) going into landfills, the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted would decrease considerably and in turn have considerable effects on atmospheric warming.
Worms and vermicomposting could also be an integral part of student empowerment. After recognizing the need to divert outgoing food waste from their campus away from landfills, the Students of Sustainability (SOS) club at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo took the initiative to build, secure, and install bins to collect compost and reduce the overall outgoing food waste from their campus. Collected compost was initially used to be included in the campus’ sustainability gardens to help amend the soil and aid in cultivating endemic Hawaiian plants. At the 5th Annual Hawaiʻi Sustainability Summit on Oʻahu in 2016, SOS collegiate club won the $10k Green Student Leadership Award for their vermicomposting initiative on campus. The prize money went into expanding the vermicomposting program, funding the installation of their campus vermicomposting station, and helped aid in creating paid student positions to continue the vermicomposting work going into the future. Student-led initiatives are an excellent way to show the power of organizing together to make sustainable and long lasting change. Is there a food waste or vermicomposting system on your local campus?
It is seen that long lasting and impactful actions on a system wide scale can start with a single small worm. Worms may be traditionally associated with this gory and spooky season, but when considering the interconnected impact of the vermicomposting process (on improving soil health and plant growth in your garden, mitigate climate change, and empowering students) give some appreciation to the bountiful benefits that worms give.
Environmental Protection Agency. (2022) Global Methane Initiative | Importance of Methane. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved October, 2022 from: https://www.epa.gov/gmi/importance-methane#:~:text=Methane%20is%20more%20than%2025,due%20to%20human%2Drelated%20activities.
Environmental Protection Agency. (2022) Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP) | Basic Information about Landfill Gas. Retrieved October, 2022 from: https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas#:~:text=Landfill%20gas%20(LFG)%20is%20a,of%20non%2Dmethane%20organic%20compounds.
Eright, Susan. (2018) UH Hilo Faculty Research & Scholarly Activity. Keaohou. Retrieved September, 2022 from: https://hilo.hawaii.edu/keaohou/2013/03/19/arancon-horticulture/
PRNewswire. (2022) Extended California Peak Strawberry Season Is Sweet News For Consumers. Cision PR Newswire. Retrieved October, 2022 from: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/extended-california-peak-strawberry-season-is-sweet-news-for-consumers-301640608.html#:~:text=%22California%20strawberries%20are%20available%20year,will%20extend%20into%20the%20fall.
Rivera, Anne. (2017) Students take lead on sustainable practices at UH Hilo. UH Hilo Stories. Retrieved September, 2022 from: https://hilo.hawaii.edu/chancellor/stories/2017/10/04/sustainable-practices/
Stubbs, Alexis. (2016) UH Hilo ag students compost the campus’s organic wastes. UH Hilo Stories. Retrieved September, 2022 from: https://hilo.hawaii.edu/chancellor/stories/2016/11/03/uh-hilo-ag-students/
Traunfeld, Jon. (2022) Organic Matter and Soil Amendments. University of Maryland Extension. Retrieved October, 2022 from: https://extension.umd.edu/resource/organic-matter-and-soil-amendments