Some readers want us to eat our words. David Shean worries about what happens when he eats them. “I eventually feed [the Reader] to my worms along with my kitchen scraps,” Shean writes us in an email. “What kind of ink do you use? I use the worm castings to fertilize plants and vegetables. I later eat these vegetables and indirectly consume your paper/ink. I was just curious to know what chemicals I’m ingesting and if I should stop.”
A call to San Dieguito Printers in San Marcos will give Shean a degree of comfort. Chris Lapham, manager of the company that prints our pages, tells me the ink he uses is soy based. Newsprint ink of any kind, especially if multicolored, does contain toxins. According to a number of sources, however, soybean oil makes ink more biodegradable — and therefore safer — than if it comes from petroleum products. But glossy pages are probably not as safe.
Shean, who’s 26, was kind enough to show me his vermicompost bin (worm composter), a purple plastic bin that looks like those mail containers you see in post offices. The bin, which Shean bought for five dollars at Target, sits at one end of a four-by-ten-foot balcony outside the Pacific Beach apartment he shares with two friends.
In the bin, six inches of shredded Reader pages (but not the glossy covers) serve as the bedding for red wigglers, a small variety of earthworm specially suited to vermiculture. Shean buries his apartment’s food waste in the shreddings, as though the paper were the soil of an outdoor compost bin. “Then the worms do all the work,” he says. “They break down the food, but they need a significant amount of sawdust or paper for a good balance of carbon and nitrogen. They end up eating the paper too. In a week and a half, all this paper will be gone.”
Water is a constant by-product of the worms’ work. The compost bin is raised higher on one end than the other, and a carved-up plastic orange juice bottle collects the water from an opening at the low end. “I pour the water in my flowerpots,” says Shean. “It makes a great fertilizer.”
The worms need substantial aeration to thrive, so Shean drilled a line of three-eighth-inch holes into the bottom of one side of the bin, and another line at the top of the other side. Only a few worms venture out through the holes. Their motionless, dried-up bodies testify to that being a foolish move.
Is there any soil in there, I ask?
“No,” says Shean. He lifts the shredded paper at one end of the bin and exposes his latest contributions, old lettuce and lemon peels. He also fingers a few worms wiggling through what looks to be a rich loam. But it’s the worms’ castings, or to put it less delicately, worm poop. “Only a few weeks ago,” Shean continues, “there wasn’t any of this brown stuff in the bin.” It now appears to be eight or ten inches deep.
Red wigglers, which range between a half inch and three inches long, are the most efficient worms at turning garbage into fertilizer. Big earthworms, such as night crawlers, are slow.
Even though Shean keeps a lid on the bin, fruit flies can become a problem if too much produce is thrown in at once. So far, he has had no problem with ants. He says he avoids putting meat, cheese, or anything oily into the bin so that foul odors don’t develop.
The expert on vermiculture is a little more liberal with what she recommends putting in the compost bin. In 1982, Mary Appelhof published Worms Eat My Garbage. She revised the book, which some call a classic of the environmental movement, in 1997. Shean has used Appelhof’s book for guidance in his own composting.
In addition to produce of all types, Appelhof suggests the following for good compost material: cake, cereal, cheese, cornbread, cream cheese, Cream of Wheat, deviled eggs, farina, grits, Malt-O-Meal, molasses, oatmeal, pancakes, pizza crust, potato salad, Ralston cereal, tea leaves, and eggshells. She does not list coffee grounds, which Shean puts in his compost. “Worms need grit in their diets,” he says, “much the way chickens use it in their gizzards to digest food.” So, like Appelhof, Shean uses eggshells. “I smash a bunch of shells, run ’em through the coffee grinder, and dump ’em in the bin.”
Appelhof’s book seems to cover everything you’d like to know about vermiculture. The chapter “How Do I Take Care of My Worms?” strikes me as the most helpful. Nevertheless, it reveals that much of the work will involve your own personal intuitions about how to proceed. For instance, about six weeks after starting a vermicompost, writes Appelhof, the bedding “will get darker, and you will be able to identify individual castings. Although you add food waste regularly, the bedding volume will slowly decrease.… There will come a time when so much of the bedding in the box becomes castings that the worm population will suffer. Because each system is different…it is not possible to predict precisely when you must deal with changing the environment of your worms. It is important to get them away from their castings and to prepare fresh bedding for them at the right time.” Sounds to me as though that’s the time for more shredded Readers.
What does Shean believe he gets out of vermiculture? He tells me that now he has less waste to put out for pickup each week. Since he also composts paper, he is sending only plastic wrappings, cardboard (not good for the compost), cans, and miscellanies to the curb. Shean’s household saves the energy it would require to use the garbage disposal. But mostly he benefits by using the worm castings as a natural fertilizer. He mixes it with the potted soil he puts in his vegetable planters.
Shean built several four-by-one-foot wooden planters to grow vegetables on his balcony. Recently, Shean harvested tomatoes, green onions, lettuce, and bok choy. I ask if there isn’t a gardening spot on the property where his apartment building sits. The only outside space he was able to find, he replies, was his front porch, where he placed a few pots. “It wasn’t long before someone ripped them off,” he tells me. He also wants to participate in a Pacific Beach community garden about a mile from his home. He’s on a one-year waiting list.
I follow Shean down a flight of stairs to his apartment’s garage. It’s where, in another bin, he stores the worms’ work after harvesting a sufficient quantity. When he opens the bin, the castings look like rich farm soil. Shean rolls a bit in his fingers. “It’s nice and crumbly,” he says. “ ‘Black gold’ is what the vermicomposters call it.” By now, Shean has removed as many of the worms as possible. “The last time I emptied the bin upstairs,” he continues, “I took out handfuls of worms. There were probably 1000 in the bin. But you can’t get them all. And there are their cocoons, little footballs a couple of millimeters across, that are hardly detectable at all. They hatch later. But the worms that are still in here now don’t have much to eat.”
Shean thinks of Southern California as a perfect place for vermiculture, especially in comparison to his home state of Maryland. He had a garden when he was a kid, he tells me, and then composted in Providence, Rhode Island, while he attended Brown University. “You have to provide lots of packing and bedding for insulation around an outdoor compost bin on the East Coast. For a while, I kept an indoor compost bin on my kitchen floor. And it’s harder getting the worms there. A couple of years ago, the post office made it illegal to send live animals through the mail.”
Shean came to San Diego a year ago to work with Malin Space Science Systems, a company that makes cameras for use on robotic spacecraft. He has a master’s degree from Brown in geology and follows what one of four cameras on the Mars rover picks up. “Since there is no vegetation on Mars, it’s perfect for looking at geological formations,” he says.
Could wiggler worms do their thing on Mars, I ask? Shean laughs and says it would be much too cold for them. “But here,” he goes on, “it’s easy to get started in vermicomposting. I bought my worms for $25 a pound from a place up in Carlsbad. But a person could get started by just taking a handful from someone who has them. They reproduce very fast.”