2000 tiny new team members

How worms can help the University become waste-free.

Composting worms can eat up to their body weight in food each day. And what do they love to eat? They love to eat many things that we throw away.

Nearly 30% the waste that the University sends to landfill every year is made of food scraps. That is 250 tonnes every year, or nearly 700 kilograms per day. This includes left over lunch, tea bags and coffee grounds, apple cores and banana peels.

This is exactly the stuff that worms live on and they have the extraordinary ability to turn it into rich, plant-available nutrients in the form of their paranoke (vermicast or worm castings).

Another one of the University’s key waste streams, paper towels (17%) is also a key ingredient in a worm farm as it provides carbon to help balance out the nitrogen in the food scraps.

So what’s exciting about all this?

It is that we can eliminate up to 50% of the waste that the University sends to landfill, right here on campus, with the help of a humble worm. This would eliminate 50% of our waste footprint and also 50% of our waste bill.

Inspired by this potential, the Sustainability Team has been working with Te Herenga Waka Marae on a trial installation of some new worm farms. In February four new worm farms were installed, along with 2000 worms to live in them.

Worm farm expert Ben Bell from Hungry Bin joined us to set these up and ran a workshop for staff about the benefits of worm farming, how best to look after the worms within the Marae context, and how to get them eating as much as possible.

The Marae operations team, Tu Temara and Te Aonui McKenzie have adopted these new tiny team members and are incorporating them into systems at the Marae. Prior to lockdown, the worms were being fed every day from the food scraps from the Marae kitchen. Luckily, worms are resilient creatures and so a big feed before the campus was closed means that they should still be alive and well when the campus re-opens under level 2.

Processing food scraps onsite like this represents a big step toward true sustainability and embodies what the Marae is aiming to achieve with the Living Pā project. This project seeks to redevelop the Marae precinct into a living building that nurtures people and place, and restores local ecosystems.

The new worm farms are now a teaching and learning hub, and a platform for the whole University to learn how we can do the right thing and absorb our waste into our onsite systems. We can imagine a not-too-distant future where worm farms are dotted around the campus, integrated into our systems and helping us reduce our waste, our waste bill, and strengthen our pride of place.

Rory Lenihan-Ikin is part of the Sustainability Team looking specifically at how we can improve sustainability in procurement and our supply chain.