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When the Worm Turns, the Result Is Fertilizer
December 10, 2001 03:21 PM ET

By Sarah Tippit

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (Reuters) - Thousands of worms began devouring leftovers from a college cafeteria here on Monday in a novel project aimed at recycling food waste into natural fertilizer.

The "vermicomposting project" at Santa Monica College in suburban Los Angeles is the second of its kind in California and one of only a handful in the United States, Britain and Canada, officials said. Manufactured by Toronto-based Original Vermitech Systems Ltd., a machine uses a bin filled with 300 pounds of slithering, elongated invertebrates to consume up to 150 pounds of food waste deposited into it each day.

Worm droppings then fall through a sifter and are collected for use as a clean, odorless, organic fertilizer, officials at Santa Monica College said. The droppings can also be used as a pesticide for certain types of plant-devouring flies.

While the college has been recycling about 37 percent of its trash, this is its first attempt at recycling food waste, which makes up about 7 percent of overall refuse at the campus.

"The college is looking for ways to reduce waste in an ecologically sound manner, and we are eager to see what the results of the vermicomposting project will be," SMC President Piedad Robertson said.

The seaside city of Santa Monica next door to Los Angeles is also watching the project closely and may consider installing a machine behind its restaurant-lined Third Street Promenade tourist district, Bruce Smith, a spokesman for the city, said.

The $50,000 Vermitech shreds food and paper waste before dumping the trash into a wriggling mass of worms. The droppings fall beneath the machine and are collected.

"It really is odorless. It just looks like nice soil," Smith said.

The machines are considered economical. An initial load of Compost Worms -- cousins, incidentally, of ordinary Earth Worms -- replenishes itself over the years so additional shipments are not needed, Vermitech scientist Rodolfo Brugger said.

But will the worms escape?

"No!" Brugger said. "They like to stay in the dark mulch. They shy away from the light."

However to allay fears the Vermitech machine comes outfitted with special precautionary lights to keep the worms at bay, Brugger said.

"This is nothing new. This is done by God's creatures, and it's an absolutely natural process," Brugger said. "The only thing we do is to help the process speed up, nothing else."

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