Background Story Behind Industrial Composting at Whitman
Campus Climate Challenge, a student environmental club at Whitman, launched the Industrial Composting Working Group in the fall of 2010. The Composting Group is carrying on previous composting efforts. In 2009, two student interns Hannah Siano ’13 and Zoey Rogers ’13 started the Green Leader program for freshmen to promote sustainable living in the residence halls. Residence hall section Green Leaders started campus composting with compost tumblers outside of residence halls. But winter weather and an excess of food waste slowed the decomposition process and ended the project.
The Composting Group worked with landscape supervisor Bob Biles to find a system that could best accommodate Whitman’s 4,000 pounds of food waste produced each week. They decided to install a large industrial compost worm-wigwam system behind Jewett Dining Hall. To build the shed and buy the worm-wigwam, the Composting Group received $16,000 in funding, from ASWC’s Green Fund, Sustainable Agriculture Technologies (the wigwam manufacturer), the Yancey P. Winans Trust, and the Whitman Physical Plant. The wigwam was purchased from a small business, Sustainable Ag Technologies, in Cottage Grove, OR and a local contractor and the Physical Plant staff built the shed.
With this system, 45,000 Red Wiggler Worms (Eisenia fetida) lived in the red shed to break down food waste into high-quality compost, or vermicompost. The Physical Plant used the finished vermicompost on campus. More than 100 pounds of student food waste could be processed each day at capacity of 105,000 worms; the worms double their population every 90-120 days. Walla Walla Worm Works locally bred the worms. Vermicomposting allows for large-scale, year round campus composting. In Fall of 2011, the Industrial Compost Center was introduced to the campus. The Composting Group used the system as a learning tool for Whitman as well as thee Walla Walla Community, giving tours of the compost center and visiting elementary school classrooms. Walla Walla Community College started its own worm-wigwam after hearing about Whitman’s.
In Spring 2012, the group faced a setback when many of the worms died. The group had received conflicting instructions from the wigwam seller on how to care for the worms within the wigwam system. The worms had become too compacted and compressed from the food waste. They were pushed to the bottom of the vermicomposter where newspaper covered the holes at the bottom. The newspaper broke through and the worms crowded around the holes for air, fell through the holes and dried out. The group then had to find the best ratios for high carbon brown waste (paper shreds) to food waste. After this setback, the group turned to Barbara Newby, the worm breeder, and used her suggestions to get the system going again and the worms breeding. Barbara said to turn the compost above the castings every week (opposite of what the seller said to do). Also more paper shreds are added to keep the food from compressing, peat moss to keep it aerated, and water if it is too dry. Now the worms are thriving in a better-managed vermicompost system and there is a layer of worm castings at the bottom. The Composting Group now hires biology interns to give the worms the right amount of food waste to thrive and repopulate.
Unfortunately, Summer 2013 once again set Whitman's worms back. The population crashed and the compost is teeming with brown mites, out-competing the worms. Given the difficulty of worm composting with the academic calendar, worm composting at Whitman has been discontinued for the foreseeable future. However, should the municipal composter begin processing food waste compost, Whitman is on the top of the list as a trial participant. The building is now home to Whitman's new mycology club, which aims to sell mushrooms to Bon Appetit to provide extremely local food made from student work.
To start your own worm compost, check out this guide.