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South Coast University Students Use Worms To Divert Campus Food Waste From Landfills

A tremendous amount of food goes to waste. So, a university on the South Coast is leading the way in diverting food waste from landfills. Students are composting on campus.

I step into an electric car here at UC Santa Barbara.

"This is our composting mobile. We use all electric vehicles here because our goal is zero waste," said Kaitlyn Haberlin, an environmental studies and archeology double major.

She is one of about seven students who work for the Department of Public Worms. Yes, you heard that right. This department – known as DPW -- is funded by a small student fee and dedicated to promoting environmental sustainability by, among other things, collecting food waste on campus and using worms to compost it in what’s called vermicompost.

So, we’re off to pick up food waste on campus. We arrive to the dining commons, and make our way into the kitchen where a designated green trash can is filled with scraps of food. Haberlin rolls it outside where she begins to sort the peeled cucumbers and carrots and pieces of lettuce and strawberries.

"There’s days when it smells like totally rotten food -- wear a mask, can't handle it.  Then there are other days when there is fresh salad. It smells good. It smells like actual food you want to eat," she said.

She says she enjoys her job.

"We’re not just advocating for the environment. We’re working for the environment. This is a job. It’s very physically demanding. And we put our bottom sweat into helping the planet. It’s very rewarding in that sense,” Haberlin said.

Now that the food waste has been collected, it’s time to feed the worms.

Shane Dewees, an environmental studies major, is also a Worm Wrangler for DPW.

"My parents gave me a pretty hard time when I got the job. And whenever I go home, they always ask me how playing with worm poop is. But, while the title is funny and the job unique, it’s a really good way to help UCSB,” he said.

Dewees cares for tens of thousands of worms that live in two bins filled with compost as well as newspapers, which act as carbon to break down the food.

“The worms don’t actually eat the food itself. They eat the bacteria that decomposes the food.  And, then all of this soil-looking stuff is all the worm castings. So, that's just worm poop. It’s really good fertilizer. You can add it straight in the soil or you can do what we do and steep it in water for 24 hours and make it into a worm tea,” he said.

This worm tea is then used to feed citrus trees on campus. And the fruit from those trees is donated to the Associated Students Food Bank, which provides food to students who face financial difficulties. It’s what’s called a closed-loop system.

“Keeping things on site, conserving our resources here, keeping it local and getting students involved and connected to their food,” said Marli Heininger, an environmental studies major, who is the outreach coordinator for DPW.

She says each year students compost 18 tons of food waste from campus dining halls and family housing. While that sounds enormous, it’s only a fraction of the amount of food waste generated on campus. Most of it is picked up by truck and driven to a composting facility in Santa Maria. However, DPW’s on-campus composting is more environmentally friendly because it keeps carbon fuels out of the process.

"We can potentially reduce this huge carbon pump that we’re putting into the atmosphere in a short period of time.  So, we can make a really big difference by altering the trajectory of how we deal with our waste,” Heininger said.

She says whether it’s on-campus or off-campus composting, it reduces climate change. And that’s the goal.