Good Clean Dirt
Sometime in March 2014, beset with spring fever and can-do attitude, I purchased my first batch of composting worms on the internet. Despite the strangeness of paying for 500 red wigglers with plastic, I felt rather nostalgic about the whole thing. Worms reminded me of backyard rock-flipping and stick-digging. But when the worms arrived in the mail, it became immediately clear that I had lost any affection I used to have for all things creepy and squirmy. But no matter—these weren’t pets or playthings. I had big plans for these worms. They were going to eat my kitchen scraps and make dirt, or “black gold,” as worm casings are known in gardening circles.
I should mention that I don’t garden. My husband and I live in a one-bedroom apartment surrounded by parking lots and smooth lawns that residents are forbidden to utilize for recreational activities. I had reasons beyond gardening for wanting to start a worm bin, the foremost being a desire to reduce our landfill waste. It’s too easy for urbanites and suburbanites to forget that the cycle of “live, die, decompose” is literally the most normal thing in the history of this planet. The majority of household waste ends up in landfills, where it is sealed and buried in airless environments. Without the presence of oxygen, the waste produces vast amounts of hazardous greenhouse gases that have to be carefully monitored, even collected and burned to curtail explosions.
The magic of composting is that much of this trash has a potential fate much more beneficial and practical than taking up space and farting clouds of methane in a landfill for hundreds of years. Given a fighting chance, organic waste will revert to good old-fashioned dirt while releasing only small amounts of greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide, which in the normal cycle of decay is then absorbed by new plants. A compost pile will do the trick if properly turned for aeration and monitored for moisture levels. Composting with worms, or vermicomposting, speeds up the process and can be done indoors.
Literature on composting is abundant. A quick online search will draw up hundreds of sources for guidelines, tips, FAQs, and forums. These are peppered with phrases such as: “low-maintenance and eco-friendly,” “let nature do its thing,” and “set it up and leave it alone.” One of my sources happened to be my sister, whose contributions to this din of optimism included: “it doesn’t get any easier than this,” “my worms ate a jack-o-lantern in a month,” and “it smells like Aveda!”
Even if you are not a gardener, it’s pretty rewarding to look at the worm casings in your vermicompost bin and know that your trash has died a good death. My plastic pail system did fine at first. As promised, a fresh outdoor smell rose up every time I removed the lid. The worms were eating kitchen scraps and producing black casings. Then, about a month and a half into it, things started to go south. The worms weren’t reproducing—an indication that they weren’t adjusted to their environment. I couldn’t keep the moisture level balanced. And the bin had a serious maggot problem. Turns out, worms are not the only creatures that like dark, damp places and rotting food. On the advice of my worm retailer I “starved” the bin for two weeks and added a few drops of clove oil to try and kill the maggots. By mid-June all of my worms were dead and decomposed. The maggots were doing well, though.
In hindsight, I made a lot of mistakes. First, the drainage and aeration holes in the bin were way too small. Confession: I made the holes small on purpose because I was afraid that the worms would wiggle out of the bin, traverse the distance between the kitchen and the bedroom, and get into bed with me. I know now that worms don’t like light, dry places, or human contact. Second, I added too much food too fast, which threw off the balance of moisture and acidity. Third, I confused my research on vermicompost with wormless compost. Wormless compost requires frequent turning for aeration. Vermicompost does not. In fact, worms don’t like to be bothered and won’t settle in if you keep sticking your giant hands into their universe and tumbling them around.
Despite all the assurances that it’s the easiest thing in the world, composting can be hard. More and more people (myself very much included) are reaching adulthood without basic knowledge about natural processes. We spend our days and nights ensconced in synthetic things, our shoes touching only pavement when we go out to catch a ride to what’s next. In our world, grass comes in rolls and dirt comes in bags.
In 2012, New York City’s Department of Sanitation kicked off a composting pilot program that included curbside pickup of organic wastes. The DSNY knew that one of its biggest challenges would be making it as easy as possible for city folk to participate. New Yorkers are used to lining their bins with plastic bags and throwing out trash without separating it. The program’s major processing facility, Peninsula Composting Group in Wilmington, Delaware, must have seemed a godsend at the time. Most composting companies accept only plant-based wastes because animal products are harder to compost and can result in odor and pest problems. Peninsula accepted a wide range of organic waste, including meat, bones, dead chicks from hatcheries, and manure. Peninsula was also lenient about receiving waste contaminated with inorganic materials like plastic bin liners and food wrappers.
The leniency that made Peninsula Group a suitable partner for DSNY ultimately contributed to the facility’s closing. At a public hearing, residents of Wilmington gathered en masse to complain that the smell caused nausea and prevented children from playing outdoors. The overwhelming volume of non-organic contaminants in the feedstock from New York City was also proving to be more than the facility could handle. Inorganic waste had to be picked out with giant magnets or by hand. Residue languished in huge piles. Peninsula was failing to fulfill the obligations dictated by local regulators. In October 2014, Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control issued an order to close the facility.[i] Its doors shut in December 2014.[ii]
Humans have been making messes since day one. For the majority of our history, we’ve dealt with our refuse by repurposing it, eating every part of the goat, and throwing the rest on a pile outside to burn or decay. The rubbish pile was an eyesore and smelly motivation to keep trash at a minimum. But in the past couple hundred years, we’ve developed the means to make much bigger, longer-lasting messes, with synthetic packaging, fuel-burning vehicles, industrialized farming, factories, mass production, and the like. Simultaneously, we’ve refined a trash-disposal system that gives us—or at least the wealthiest of us—minimal contact with our own garbage. Toss it in a bin and it vanishes. Toss in more, and that vanishes too. This is the mindset DSNY had to work with in their composting pilot program. Human behavior is a tenacious thing, even when guided by moral or practical motivations. Maybe getting people to use the city’s brown bins was step one. Changing what they actually put in those bins could be step two.
New York City’s composting program isn’t dead. Companies in Connecticut and New York state continue to accept its organic wastes, though in much smaller quantities and without Peninsula’s leniency regarding contaminants and animal products. Non-profit groups such as GrowNYC and Build It Green!NYC provide compost drop-off points throughout the city. An increasing number of private citizens are taking part in home composting efforts. If Pinterest and home goods retailers are any indication, composting is approaching the status of full-on trend (search “eco” in Pinterest or check out Williams-Sonoma’s stainless steel compost pail with vintage detailing). Beyond New York, we can look to cities such as Austin, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore., all of which are implementing their own city-wide composting programs. Countries like Austria and Netherlands, which compost 34% and 28% of their municipal waste respectively, give us hope to keep trying.[iii]
Personally speaking, I haven’t quite gotten over the fact that I put up with a bucket of rot, worms, and maggots in my kitchen for three months and it came to nothing. I am still irrationally afraid that if I try vermicomposting again, worms (or worse, maggots) will find me in the middle of the night. But I also flinch at every tea bag, carrot peel, and stale crust that goes into the garbage can. I know I’ll have to try again soon. I have the bin and the tarp and the drill ready to go. All that’s left is to get the worms and start making some good, clean dirt.
[i] "DNREC Secretary Small Orders Closure of Peninsula Compost Facility in Wilmington." DNREC Secretary Small Orders Closure of Peninsula Compost Facility in Wilmington. Web. 22 Dec. 2014. <>.
[ii] Eddings, Amy. "Rotten Luck: NYC's Pilot Compost Program in Trouble." WNYC News. 1 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Dec. 2014. <>.
[iii] "Recycling's 'Final Frontier': The Composting of Food Waste." By Dave Levitan: Yale Environment 360. Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 3 Aug. 2013. Web. 22 Dec. 2014. <>.