Worms help digest region's food waste
Gretchen Ciocco has no intention of ever touching the hundreds of worms living at her Braddock Hills home, but that doesn't mean she wants them out.
Ciocco, 35, and her husband, Ben Ciocco, 29, believe the squirming invertebrates will make their lives better.
So much so that they made their residence into a kind of manor for worms one night last week. They brought home a bin of red wigglers, fed them vegetables and went to sleep knowing their environmental footprint would be smaller in the morning.
"We cook a lot, and this will make sure we produce a lot less garbage," said Gretchen Ciocco, hands adorned with gloves, after taking a class on vermicomposting.
Twenty-five people joined the Cioccos at Conservation Consultants Inc. in the South Side to hear Erika Ninos of the Pennsylvania Resources Council explain how to compost with worms.
Worms are kept in a bin with dirt and paper waste. They are fed kitchen scraps -- fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, egg shells and bread are favorites -- and their waste becomes a rich fertilizer called castings. The castings are sorted from the soil every few months.
"Composting is just the managing of natural processes, and vermicomposting is just managing the food web," Ninos said.
Though it's difficult to gauge how many people are using worms to compost nationwide, the number is on the rise, said Rhonda Sherman, a solid-waste specialist with North Carolina State University. Sherman has studied vermicomposting for about 25 years and is holding the university's eighth annual conference on the topic today and Tuesday in Raleigh, N.C.
"I get calls daily asking how to get started, whether at home or on a commercial scale," Sherman said. Efforts to form a vermicomposting trade association have failed, she said, but the growing popularity of the practice could make the formation of one only a matter of time.
"People are finally becoming aware of organic waste, which can be 75 percent of the waste stream," Sherman said.
Vermicomposting yields "awesome" fertilizer, said Erik Kintzel, who manages a worm bin 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and about 4 1/2 feet high at Construction Junction in Point Breeze for the Pennsylvania Resources Council.
That's one of the things that attracted Laura Swisher, 31, and Bill Swisher, 37, to Ninos' class. The couple just bought a house in O'Hara.
"We liked the idea that we wouldn't have to purchase fertilizer," Laura Swisher said.
In addition to the Construction Junction bin, the Pennsylvania Resources Council has helped set up large worm bins at a Lawrence County group home, the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh in the North Side and the campus of the Felician Sisters in Coraopolis.
"We've had ours for about four years," Sister Mary Christopher Moore said of the vermicomposting system that processes food waste from roughly 400 nuns and students during the school year. "We use the casting for our plants on campus and in our greenhouse. It's working quite well."