Composting with Worms

Vermicomposting is a type of composting in which certain species of earthworms are used to enhance the process of organic waste conversion and produce a better end-product. It is a mesophilic process utilizing microorganisms and earthworms. Earthworms feeds the organic waste materials and passes it through their digestive system and gives out in a granular form (cocoons) which is known as vermicompost. Simply speaking, vermicompost is earthworm excrement, called castings, which can improve biological, chemical, and physical properties of the soil. The chemical secretions in the earthworm’s digestive tract help break down soil and organic matter, so the castings contain more nutrients that are immediately available to plants.

Production of Vermicompost

A wide range of agricultural residues, such as straw, husk, leaves, stalks, weeds etc can be converted into vermicompost. Other potential feedstock for vermicompost production are livestock wastes, poultry litter, dairy wastes, food processing wastes, organic fraction of MSW, bagasse, digestate from biogas plants etc. Earthworms consume organic wastes and reduce the volume by 40–60 percent. Each earthworm weighs about 0.5 to 0.6 gram, eats waste equivalent to its body weight and produces cast equivalent to about 50 percent of the waste it consumes in a day. The moisture content of castings ranges between 32 and 66 percent and the pH is around 7. The level of nutrients in compost depends upon the source of the raw material and the species of earthworm.

There are nearly 3600 types of earthworms which are divided into burrowing and non-burrowing types. Red earthworm species, like Eisenia foetida, and are most efficient in compost making. The non-burrowing earthworms eat 10 percent soil and 90 percent organic waste materials; these convert the organic waste into vermicompost faster than the burrowing earthworms. They can tolerate temperatures ranging from 0 to 40°C but the regeneration capacity is more at 25 to 30°C and 40–45 percent moisture level in the pile. The burrowing types of earthworms come onto the soil surface only at night. These make holes in the soil up to a depth of 3.5 m and produce 5.6 kg casts by ingesting 90 percent soil and 10 percent organic waste.

The types of vermicomposting depend upon the amount of producton and composting structures. Small-scale vermicomposting is done to meet personal requirements and farmers/gardeners can harvest 5-10 tons of vermicompost annually. On the other hand, large-scale vermicomposting is done at commercial scale by recycling large quantities of organic waste in modern facilities with the production of more than hundreds of tons annually.

Benefits of Vermicompost

The worm castings contain higher percentage of both macro and micronutrients than the garden compost. Apart from other nutrients, a fine worm cast is rich in NPK which are in readily available form and are released within a month of application. Vermicompost enhances plant growth, suppresses disease in plants, increases porosity and microbial activity in soil, and improves water retention and aeration. Vermicompost also benefits the environment by reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and decreasing the amount of waste going to landfills. Vermicompost production is trending up worldwide and it is finding increasing use especially in Western countries, Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia.

A relatively new product from vermicomposting is vermicompost tea which is a liquid produced by extracting organic matter, microorganisms, and nutrients from vermicompost. Unlike vermicompost and compost, this tea may be applied directly to plant foliage, reportedly to enhance disease suppression. Vermicompost tea also may be applied to the soil as a supplement between compost applications to increase biological activity.

Vermicompost may be sold in bulk or bagged with a variety of compost and soil blends. Markets include home improvement centers, nurseries, landscape contractors, greenhouses, garden supply stores, grocery chains, flower shops, discount houses, and the general public.

An Introduction to Composting

The composting process is a complex interaction between organic waste and microorganisms. The microorganisms that carry out this process fall into three groups: bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetesActinomycetes are a form of fungi-like bacteria that break down organic matter. The first stage of the biological activity is the consumption of easily available sugars by bacteria, which causes a fast rise in temperature. The second stage involves bacteria and actinomycetes that cause cellulose breakdown. The last stage is concerned with the breakdown of the tougher lignins by fungi.

Central solutions are exemplified by low-cost composting without forced aeration, and technologically more advanced systems with forced aeration and temperature feedback. Central composting plants are capable of handling more than 100,000 tons of biodegradable waste per year, but typically the plant size is about 10,000 to 30,000 tons per year. Biodegradable wastes must be separated prior to composting: Only pure foodwaste, garden waste, wood chips, and to some extent paper are suitable for producing good-quality compost.

Composting Equipment

The composting plants consist of some or all of the following technical units: bag openers, magnetic and/or ballistic separators, screeners (sieves), shredders, mixing and homogenization equipment, turning equipment, irrigation systems, aeration systems, draining systems, bio-filters, scrubbers, control systems, and steering systems. The composting process occurs when biodegradable waste is piled together with a structure allowing for oxygen diffusion and with a dry matter content suiting microbial growth.

Biodegradable wastes must be separated prior to composting: Only pure food waste, garden waste, wood chips, and to some extent paper are suitable for producing good-quality compost.The temperature of the biomass increases due to the microbial activity and the insulation properties of the piled material. The temperature often reaches 65 to 75 degrees C within few days and then declines slowly. This high temperature hastens the elimination of pathogens and weed seeds.

Composting Methodologies

The methodology of composting can be categorized into three major segments—anaerobic composting, aerobic composting, and vermicomposting. In anaerobic composting, the organic matter is decomposed in the absence of air. Organic matter may be collected in pits and covered with a thick layer of soil and left undisturbed six to eight months. The compost so formed may not be completely converted and may include aggregated masses.

Aerobic composting is the process by which organic wastes are converted into compost or manure in presence of air and can be of different types. The most common is the Heap Method, where organic matter needs to be divided into three different types and to be placed in a heap one over the other, covered by a thin layer of soil or dry leaves. This heap needs to be mixed every week, and it takes about three weeks for conversion to take place. The process is same in the Pit Method, but carried out specially constructed pits. Mixing has to be done every 15 days, and there is no fixed time in which the compost may be ready.

Berkley Method uses a labor-intensive technique and has precise requirements of the material to be composted. Easily biodegradable materials, such as grass, vegetable matter, etc., are mixed with animal matter in the ratio of 2:1. Compost is usually ready in 15 days.

Vermicomposting involves use of earthworms as natural and versatile bioreactors for the process of conversion. It is carried out in specially designed pits where earthworm culture also needs to be done. Vermicomposting is a precision-based option and requires overseeing of work by an expert. It is also a more expensive option (O&M costs especially are high).