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Composting, with help from worms, at WMU's Gibbs House

Three women stand by blue bins on a table in a plastic-covered hoop house. The women on the middle and left are scooping soil and paper shreds out of a bin while the one on the right takes a photo.
Jalen Williams
Participant Sasha Paleshule, right, and workshop leader Krystal York, middle, at a worm-composting-bin workshop at WMU's Gibbs House March 23.

Participants in a recent workshop learned how to keep the worms happy — by feeding them bananas but not onions, for example.

On a rainy afternoon in March, Krystal York greets people as they arrive at the Gibbs House on Western’s Parkview campus.

“Welcome to the Gibbs house, have you guys been here before? Welcome back and welcome, we do a lot of cool stuff here like gardening and composting, those are the two main categories," she said.

York just graduated from WMU with a PhD in electrical engineering. She explains some of the work the Office of Sustainability does, which includes collecting scraps from the two biggest dining halls on campus, the Valley Dining Center and Henry Grab and Go. Gibbs House volunteers then compost the scraps outside the house in bins.

On this Earth Day and year-round, some people are looking for ways they can personally fight climate change. One option is composting, which keeps food out of methane-producing landfills. But some composters go further than taking scraps out to the yard and turning them occasionally.

That's why York is standing in front of a small group at Gibbs House, kicking off a workshop on vermicomposting.

“Vermicomposting is composting with worms. It is super cool we got a lot of worms in this bin right now and you will get about a pound of worms," she said.

Worm composting can be done in- or outdoors. When done correctly, it produces high-quality compost within a few months. Each participant is going to build a small vermicomposting bin. Undergraduate Western Michigan University student Sasha Paleshule says she is eager to get started.

“I am an environmental sustainability major, so this is kind of in my wheelhouse. I have been trying to be more sustainable and this is a great opportunity to get into it," she says.

In front of the participants lies a tote full of shredded paper. Their first task is to dampen the shreds.
This allows easier digestion for the worms as well as giving them a moist environment to live in. With the paper wetted, York brings over the worms.

York gives every participant a banana peel for their worms to start with. She explains that bananas, apples, tea leaves and coffee all make excellent worm food. But orange peels, meat, and onions - not so much.

York says composters should cut food up and make it mushy, which allows the worms to eat and break down food more quickly. She says it usually takes five to eight months for proper digestion of everything in the bin.

And if it starts to smell? The worms need some catch-up time to eat all the food in the bin.

"Once they eat it, it’s just worm poop at that point. I mean worm poop doesn’t really smell that bad. In my opinion," she says, agreeing with a participant who calls the smell "earthy."

Finally, York gives each composter a burlap sack to put on top of the bins.

“That also helps with moisture retention in the bin and so it keeps them dark and they like the dark," she explained.

Sasha Paleshule, the environmental sustainability major, is excited to take the worms home.

"I came in as a single woman and left a mom," she said.

Worm composting workshops are over for this academic year. However, student staff will continue to compost at Gibbs House during the summer.