Businesses use worms to turn food scraps into valuable commodity | Crain's Pittsburgh

Businesses use worms to turn food scraps into valuable commodity

Red wigglers are used at Shadyside Nursery on Maryland Avenue in Pittsburgh to turn food scraps into nutrient-rich fertilizer. | Photo courtesy of Travis Leivo.

Travis Leivo literally wormed his way into a job at Shadyside Nursery.

The 35-year-old runs a compost exchange program out of the Maryland Avenue business where he teaches folks about the wonders of vermiculture, which is the practice of using worms to break down organic waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer.

“The appeal of vermiculture is that it can be a little more passive. It’s like the difference between owning an aquarium and taking care of a dog,” he explains. “The compost they create is slightly different than what you’d get from a regular compost heap.”

Leivo uses eisenia fetida, more commonly known as red wigglers. They eat through food scrap – leafy greens, fruit peels, pulp, coffee grinds, etc. – and leave behind worm castings, or poop, that doesn’t take the place of soil but is perfect for helping plants grow. Relying on the skinny guys to gobble up your garbage has other advantages too.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food waste is the single largest component going into municipal landfills. The discarded scraps generate methane, a colorless, odorless and greenhouse gas. Red wigglers’s big appetites are playing a small part in protecting the ozone layer.

Folks interested in vermicomposting in their own homes should start small.

Buy or build a worm bin. Get worms – 1,000 of them should do the trick for a small household – and create an ecosystem for them inside the bin using dirt or peat moss. Start placing scraps in a corner of the bin where the worms are concentrated and pay attention to what they eat (they aren’t huge fans of meat or fatty foods). Put a layer of bedding, such as shredded newspaper or lint, on top of them. Make sure there is proper drainage so the bin doesn’t stink up the kitchen.

For people in the East End of Pittsburgh who don’t have the time or the means to make fertilizer in their own homes, Shadyside Worms offers a compost exchange program. For $20 a month Leivo will provide residents with a food scrap bucket, which is lined with a biodegradable bag and sealed with a snap-on lid to cut down on the smell-factor. Leivo will pick up the scraps and, later on, deliver worm castings. Participants who don’t want their vermicompost can donate it back to Shadyside Worms, where it is distributed to community gardens and non-profit organizations.

Leivo, whose passion for urban gardening blossomed thanks to his mother and grandfather, says people should embrace worms as environmental warriors, even if they have an aversion to creepy crawlies.

Laura Totin Codori was able to overcome her worm-phobia to institute Worm Return, a consulting business that helps local businesses, organizations, schools and local governments turn their food waste into something beneficial.

“Worms kind of freak me out,” she says with a laugh, “but I love what they do so much, I can get past that.”

A resident of the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Totin Codori, 38, admits that she doesn’t have a green thumb, but her interest in composting far exceeds her agricultural skills. She bought her first worm bin in 2013 after reading “You Grow Girl: The Groundbreaking Guide to Gardening” by Gayla Trail.

“I had always toyed with the idea of commercial composting,” she says. “My biggest motivator is food waste diversion. It contributes so much to our greenhouse gases. Why throw it in a landfill when you can make dirt?”

An entrepreneurship and innovation class at Robert Morris University motivated Totin Codori to develop her hobby into a business that serves her community. She breeds and sells red wigglers, in bulk or by the pound, distributes Do-It-Yourself worm kits and gives demonstrations to school children.

Between three of its local partners – Black Forge Coffee House, Black Market Beef and Onion Maiden – Worm Return has diverted more than 925 pounds of food waste from city of Pittsburgh landfills.

Brooks Criswell, co-owner Onion Maiden, vegan-friendly restaurant that specializes in Asian-American cuisine, says he’s been composting for a while; he even did the dirty work for The Zenith cafe on the South Side prior to opening his own eatery.

“It benefits our business because we've been able to cut our trash output in half, which cuts down on utility costs for us,” he says of Worm Return’s services. “Not only that, and much more importantly, that food doesn't go to waste. Table scraps, napkins and straws (made from corn) that would otherwise end up in a landfill, now get converted into compost. It's a win-win situation for everyone. Although still in its grassroots stages here in Pittsburgh, it's good to see this trend catching on, as really progressive cities like San Francisco have been doing this on a municipal level for years now.”

Ashley Corts, co-owner of Black Forge Coffee House, agrees.

“We are just trying to do our best in every sense possible as a small neighborhood coffee shop,” she says. “And if it helps us, our neighbors, other small businesses then we want to be a part of whatever it is.”

April 10, 2018 - 11:31am