June 21, 2004

Proposed worm farm would have multiple benefits

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- An innovative mix of food waste and earthworms at Southern Illinois University Carbondale could bring fertilizer additives to golf courses and gardens.

The research project proposes letting an estimated 3 million red wiggler earthworms gorge on more than 172,000 pounds of food waste generated annually from the University's three residence hall cafeterias. The worms, in turn, will provide a compost that is very rich in nitrous phosphorous that could complement existing mineral fertilizers, according to SIUC soil microbiologist Brian P. Klubek.

Recycling and Solid Waste Coordinator Andilee M. Warner looks for ways for reduce, reuse and recycle University waste, and sees many benefits from the proposed project. SIUC is awaiting word on a three-year, $150,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to move the project forward.

Media Advisory

For more information about the proposed vermicomposting program, contact SIUC Recycling and Solid Waste Coordinator Andilee M. Warner at 618/453-8131.

There is no timeline on when the University will learn of the grant award, "but we would hope to have an answer in the next couple of months," Warner said, adding that if vermicomposting begins later this year, the organic materials would be ready for spring planting at University Farms.

"This is another way that the University could have economic and environmental benefits by reducing the costs of what it takes to remove waste from campus, decrease what we send to the landfill, increase the landfill's longevity, and reduce the environmental impact SIUC has on the area," she said.

Based on a single-day food audit, Warner determined that during the 2003-04 school year, the three residence hall cafeterias served 852,263 dining-in meals, which produced roughly 172,157 pounds of food waste. The food waste is already ground into a pulp with the water removed before it is taken to the Jackson County Landfill, so the worm's food base is already present.

The grant would pay for equipment, including about 24 9-foot by 3-foot vessels that hold worms, food pulp and compost. Each vessel, suspended off the ground, will house at least 100,000 worms capable of composting 50 pounds of food waste per day, Warner said.

Plans also call for construction of a 3,600-square-foot insulated pole barn on an existing foundation behind the SIU Press off McLafferty Road.

Recycling will also play a role in keeping those little wrigglers warm on cold nights. Warner hopes to heat the building with a furnace that utilizes used motor oil from University vehicles. The estimated utility cost for heating with an oil furnace is just over $12,000 annually, a savings of about $40,000 over a natural gas furnace.

Klubek and two other faculty members in the Department of Plant, Soil and General Agriculture -- soil physicist She-Kong Chong and fruit and vegetable specialist Alan Walters -- will conduct research on the amounts of compost to apply, crop and turf grass response, and whether there are nutrient deficiencies to resolve.

"We need to have at least two years of field data for anything that will hold up in terms of scientific review," Klubek said. "Normally in agriculture research you want a minimum of two years data for field work because of the kind of variations you get with rainfall, climate and temperatures."

This would be the first application of a University using vermicomposting in the state, Warner said. She doesn't have the three million red wiggler earthworms, just yet. For the last couple of weeks, Warner has had about 3,000 of what she laughingly calls her "kids" in a soil-filled, blue rubber container in her office.

Jackson County will provide a $15,000 matching grant should the proposal receive state funding. DCEO's Technologies and Practices Demonstration Program targets innovative and not widely used practices that reduce waste, Warner said.

Warner also sees other benefits from the unique project, ranging from helping with student recruitment to being a "great hands-on educational tool" for elementary and secondary students in the region.

"We need to grab these young kids during their earliest modes of education and show them what sustainability is, show them and teach them how to live with as little impact on the earth as you can," she said.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern@150, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.