Worms Make Great Pets, And Other Reasons To Compost At Home D.C. has just launched a program to encourage composting at home, with rebates and free composting workshops.
From NPR station

WAMU 88.5

NPR logo

Worms Make Great Pets, And Other Reasons To Compost At Home

Worms Make Great Pets, And Other Reasons To Compost At Home

Worms Make Great Pets, And Other Reasons To Compost At Home

Worms Make Great Pets, And Other Reasons To Compost At Home

Participants in a worm composting workshop in D.C. Once completed, they are eligible for up to a $75 rebate to purchase a composter. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Jacob Fenston/WAMU

This story was updated at Dec. 20 at 11:50 a.m.

For most people, disposing of something means tossing it in a trash can — later, it magically disappears. But with composting, you're literally getting your hands dirty, processing your own waste in your backyard or even inside your house.

"It is very different than just putting your trash out and having it supposedly 'Go away,'" says Brenda Platt, with the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "There is no 'away.' Landfills pollute, trash incinerators pollute, and in D.C., that's where our trash goes."

Composting food scraps keeps waste out of landfills, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and improves soil. D.C. is helping residents get started composting at home through a new program offering rebates and free classes.

Catherine Plume has been composting at her house in Petworth for years. Just inside her front door, she opens up a small wooden box. The brown material inside is writhing and pulsating.

"Actually, they're a perfect pet," says Plume, scooping up a handful of worms mixed with food scraps. "They don't require walks. And I feed them about once a week."

Catherine Plume's pets: red wigglers! Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Jacob Fenston/WAMU

They're a little picky, and they love fresh fruit.

"Apple cores, mangoes, fruit like that," Plume says. "They don't like citrus."

The red wigglers quickly devour the fruit they like and poop out high-quality compost, known as worm castings.

Plume is a waste reduction consultant and vice-chair of the D.C. chapter of the Sierra Club. In addition to the worms, she also has millions of microscopic pets in the backyard.

"This is where everything else goes," she says, lifting the lid of her backyard compost bin.

Micro-organisms in her compost bin devour whatever the picky worms in the house won't. Between the worms, the backyard bin and recycling, Plume says she doesn't put much in the trash.

That's the goal of D.C.'s new home composting program — to cut down on waste by creating more home composters like Plume.

Plume turning the compost in her backyard bin. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Jacob Fenston/WAMU

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) is behind the legislation, passed in 2018, that created the new rebate program.

"Homes are the single largest source of food waste," Cheh says.

D.C. has made a lot of progress on environmental issues, Cheh says, from clean energy to green buildings. But in terms of composting and recycling, the District is way behind neighboring jurisdictions and other big cities — even though a lot of residents are eager to keep their waste out of landfills.

"There is a clamor among residents — they want to do more. So they need us to help them do more," Cheh says.

Brenda Platt shows Lauren Kovach and others a worm bin in action. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Jacob Fenston/WAMU

On a recent Saturday, about 25 people showed up for the first free composting workshop through the new program. When the workshop was first announced, it filled up in just six hours.

Brenda Platt is one of the people leading the workshop. She kneels on the ground and peers into a worm bin, as attendees shine their phone flashlights to illuminate the dark bin.

"Oh, this is typical," Platt says. She pulls out something paper-thin, translucent and covered with veins. "This is a cantaloupe," she says.

"Oh, wow!" says one of the attendees.

"It's literally all gone except for this web-like rind. That will eventually disappear too," Platt says.

The worms were hungry! Participants in the workshop learn about worm biology, which species are the best for creating compost, moisture levels and the proper mix of food scraps and browns, like leaves or paper.

Participants in the composting workshop. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Jacob Fenston/WAMU

People who attended the compost workshop are now eligible for a rebate of up to $75 to buy a composter. After the workshop, attendee Lauren Kovach told me she's been using a homemade worm bin, albeit with limited success. Now, with help from the city, she can buy a better one.

"I need to go home, I need to harvest my worms and I need to put them in a better home because I've been torturing them," Kovach says.

Food scraps and other organics account for about one-third of waste generated in D.C. Composting could keep thousands of tons of material out of landfills. When organic waste decomposes in a landfill, it does so in an environment with no oxygen, where anaerobic bacteria do the work of decomposition. Those bacteria produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide, in the short term. Landfills are one of the top sources of methane in the United States.

"But when we convert that food waste by mixing it with the right recipe with other things like leaves, and we produce compost, and we add it to soil, it draws down carbon from the atmosphere and sequesters that carbon in the soil," Platt says.

Not only does adding compost to soil take carbon out of the atmosphere, it also makes soil more productive, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

Catherine Plume shows off finished worm castings. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Jacob Fenston/WAMU

D.C. has ambitious waste reduction goals: By 2032, the city wants to divert 80% of waste — composting or recycling it instead of sending it to landfills or incinerators. There's a long way to go — currently, just around 20% of waste is diverted. A citywide curbside compost pickup program is in the works, but that may be a ways off. In the meantime, there are plans for seven more home composting workshops in the next few months. The workshops during the colder months will focus on worm composting (indoors), while there will be backyard compost sessions starting in the spring (outdoors).

The D.C. rebates can be used to purchase a wide range of compost bins or worm boxes. These include standard backyard bins, which typically sell for between $30 and $70; compost tumblers, which sell for between $100 and $450; and worm bins, which generally sell for between $50 and $150. The rebate will reimburse the cost of the composter, minus $25, up to a maximum rebate of $75.

Plume says her finished compost is so valuable, she gives it to friends for Christmas. (Shhh! Don't tell.) Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Jacob Fenston/WAMU

If you live outside D.C., other jurisdictions also have programs to incentivize home composting. Here are a few:

  • Montgomery County offers free outdoor bins, available for pick up. There is only one model available (about a $30 value).
  • Arlington County offers the same type of composter as Montgomery County for $20 — about a 30% discount off the retail price.
  • The city of Bowie offers composters for a discounted $20.

This story was updated to clarify that methane is more potent than carbon dioxide, not carbon.

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU 88.5 values your feedback.

From NPR station

WAMU 88.5