Photo by Jessica Arabski

By Jessica Arabski and Maria Castro

A medley of nearly 20 New Yorkers gather in the community room of the Seward Park branch of the New York Public Library. The group – ranging from hipsters to teachers – represents the diversity of the Lower East Side, but all share one interest in common: a desire to learn how a worm, only a few centimeters long, can help recycle waste and replenish starved soil.

In the Big Apple, worms – which recycle everything they eat – are coming to the rescue of an underground in crisis. New York state’s landfills could reach full capacity in 2013 and city officials are under pressure to find alternative trash disposal methods that are environmentally sound. Vermicomposting – the use of worms to convert organic waste into nutrient-rich compost – is one of the city’s more quirky alternatives.

“Composting actually makes a lot of sense in an urban setting but most people assume it’s only for farms or out in the country,” said Melanie Chopko, outreach coordinator for Manhattan’s compost project, a Department of Sanitation initiative. “I could say that the [stereotypical vermicomposter] is a gardener, but I feel that when people learn about worms, it’s sort of a fascination that develops and sort of wins over the hearts of people.”

The typical New York City household produces two pounds of organic waste each day, according to the city’s Department of Sanitation. In the course of a year, that adds up to over one million tons of waste that could potentially end up in landfills and incinerators.

To combat the problem, the Department of Sanitation’s Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling began funding the NYC Compost Project in 1993 to provide outreach and education to city residents and businesses. The program was suspended with other recycling efforts due to city budget cuts in 2001 and 2002, but reinstated in 2003. The city’s botanical gardens and the Lower East Side Ecology Center, located under the Williamsburg Bridge, conduct project programs including workshops, landscape training and compost instruction for teachers, as well as distribution of composting equipment and materials.

Composting entails placing organic waste in outdoor bins or a process even as simple as collecting leaves in a backyard pile. In vermicomposting, worms consume and digest organic matter and the excreted castings are actually nutrient-rich compost. Composting advocates recommend red wigglers as opposed to typical earthworms due to their faster reproductive and composting capacities.

Even though New Yorkers aren’t known for getting dirty, vermicomposting is highly conducive to an urban lifestyle. Bins are cheap and easy to construct from sealed containers drilled with aeration holes. Depending on the size, bins are also discreet and can fit in small places – including cramped New York City apartments.

The city produces enough garbage to fill Yankee Stadium three times daily – a third of this garbage can be composted and would save the city considerable expenses, said Chopko. In 2005, the Lower East Side Ecology Center processed 60 tons of kitchen scraps and produced about 15 tons of finished compost. Similar efforts could potentially relieve strain on rapidly filing landfills.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, 50,000 tons of residential and commercial solid waste are collected in New York City per day.

Trash disposal alternatives such as composting gained increased attention with the closing of the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island in March 2001. The closure of the 2,200-acre landfill – once the largest in the world – led the city to transport trash outside the metropolitan area.

Aside from reducing the amount of trash processed at landfills, vermicomposting also improves soil quality. Nutrient-poor city soil is unable to drain properly, so water runoff from rain and snow enters the sewage system, picking up toxins and garbage on the way. Healthy soil, such as that produced by compost, is more absorptive and capable of filtering pollutants. The Lower East Side Ecology Center encourages people to add their compost to community gardens and trees lining sidewalks.

The homespun, do-it-yourself earthiness of vermicomposting may contrast with city sophistication, but the method nonetheless helps solve environmental crises plaguing the city while also permitting New Yorkers do something a little less grown up: play in the dirt.

“There are a lot of urbane issues that are addressed by worms and compost,” said Chopko. “It’s a very simple, almost childish, process, but it has very adult implications and very real benefits.”

For a print version of this article, click here.


Teaching the public the 'wonder of the worm'
Melanie Chopko, outreach coordinator for the Manhattan division of the NYC Compost Project, shows a model worm bin at the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Her job entails educating city residents about what she calls the "wonder of the worm." (Photo by Jessica Arabski)
Slideshow: Vermicomposting in the Big Apple

Scenes of worm composting projects initiated by the Lower East Side Ecology Center.

Slideshow: Would worms make good roommates?

New Yorkers sound off on inviting the wiggling recyclers into their apartments.

The dirt on vermicomposting
The pros and cons of an unusual recycling effort.
Charting trash trends

Charts and graphs depicting municipal solid waste and landfill management statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency
To learn more about vermicomposting and trash disposal, visit these links: