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How MSU's Worm Wizard is leading vermicomposting on campus

November 5, 2023
<p>The Worm Wizard, Sean Barton, with his real worms at the Michigan State University Recycling Center and Surplus Store on Oct. 30, 2023.</p>

The Worm Wizard, Sean Barton, with his real worms at the Michigan State University Recycling Center and Surplus Store on Oct. 30, 2023.

At Michigan State, 51,000 students produce 14,000 pounds of food waste across MSU’s 30 dining locations in a single day.

Generally, food waste is sent to decompose in open air in a landfill, producing methane: a greenhouse gas 80 times more effective at holding in heat than carbon dioxide. This process is described as an open ending to an unsustainable "food loop," or the food production process from growing, consumption and waste.

In 2010, MSU horticulture professor John Biernbaum sought to develop a method diverting some food waste away from landfills, beginning a vermicomposting project with funding from the MSU Student Life & Engagement, or SLE, formerly known as Resident Housing Services, and the MSU Office of Sustainability with the goal of diverting kitchen preparation scraps from the landfill.

Vermicomposting is a method of converting organic material into nutrient rich fertilizer by feeding worms a microbe-rich compost and harvesting the resulting material.

In simpler terms: vermicomposting turns vegetable scraps into worm poop.

This method only deals with kitchen prep scraps, as they have the least contaminants and are easily broken down. Worms are sensitive to protein and sodium, two things found in many processed meat and cheeses.

Over the course of five years, Biernbaum developed this vermicomposting method into a viable system for recycling kitchen scraps. His original method was able to process 20,000 pounds of food waste in a single year. A small team of students used pitchforks and wheelbarrows to harvest compost and move materials.I

In 2018, Biernbaum welcomed a new partner into his worm business: future Worm Wizard Sean Barton.

Barton, MSU alumnus and current operations supervisor of the MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center, or SSRC, began his college career at MSU in 2003. Barton developed an interest in sustainability after working in the dorms with MSU's SLE.

This led Barton to a position at the SSRC: initially as a collections worker and then as the recycling center's overseer.

It was then that Barton met Biernbaum and his worm subjects. Biernbaum needed a permanent home for his project before he retired; somewhere the project could not only operate, but flourish. The recycling center was already recycling and reusing materials from campus but had no systems for organics.

So, the facility welcomed Biernbaum's vermicomposting methods and Barton to learn the way of the worm.

Barton gained his title as Worm Wizard from Biernbaum, who had already gained the title of "Worm Whisperer." After deliberations with Barton, the title of Worm Wizard was chosen and has stuck ever since.

The SSRC's vermicomposting site is the most northern location of its kind in Michigan, as vermicomposting is more difficult to accomplish in northern states due to the cold temperatures in winter months.

Barton said his job is to "receive whatever the university gives me and make something useful out of it," and his efforts can be seen in every corner of the facility.

Piles of waste are organized as neatly as possible based on material: plastic, cardboard, mixed paper, metal, library books and wires stripped for copper. If there isn’t a labeled bin for each material, a new one is made and filled.

This same philosophy is applied to the vermicomposting program. Barton said if he had his way, every piece of organic waste produced by the university would be reused in some fashion. 

To aid in further composting efforts, all raw vegetable scraps go through a "pre-composting" process before being fed to the worms.

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This process mixes kitchen scraps, or greens, with other carbon fillers, such as chopped up leaves or shredded paper, or browns, to facilitate the growth of bacteria and microbes that will break the mixture down. This is an important first step as worms have no mouths and cannot consume solids.

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The worms eat the bacteria and microbes presented in the precomposed feedstock and deposits nutrient rich materials back into the soil.

Specific worm species are used in this process too; only six out of the over 9,000 species of worms are used in composting and only one of those six are used at the SSRC: the Red Wiggler.

The Red Wiggler is used for its resiliency, ability to quickly reproduce and high tolerance of other worms. They can survive in temperature ranges from 40 to 80 degrees but thrive in the 60 to 70 degree range.

“I like to look at myself as a microbe farmer and a worm rancher,” Barton said. “It’s all about the microbes.”

As much as microbes are an important component in a healthy soil ecosystem, Barton is much more fond of the worms.

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"They never sleep, eat 24/7 and won’t tell your secrets, as they eat the shredded paper of confidential documents," Barton said. 

Today, the vermicomposting program diverts approximately 200,000 pounds of food waste from the landfill every year. That includes kitchen prep scraps, fruits and coffee grounds. 

The site was built by Barton and SSRC workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. As campus was shut down, no waste or recycling was produced with no need to sort materials or continue jobs for the students employed at the SSRC.

So Barton had the idea to enlist their help in building the vermicomposting structure.

The site is a simple hoop tent anchored to the ground using metal stakes and an asphalt floor to make harvesting easier, preventing the worms from escaping into the ground below the compost pile.

Off to the side of the pre-composting tent is a unique small pile of finished compost with a Spartan head sign stuck in the center.

This compost pile was made entirely out of memorial flowers left on campus after the shooting on Feb. 13 to honor the three students who died: Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser and Alexandria Verner. Barton, his team and other volunteers spent an entire day collecting flowers from campus before a snowstorm and brought them to the SSRC to be composted and reused.

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This compost is being reserved for the explicit use of fertilizer for the memorial gardens being designed to honor the victims.

The composting program is unique as on-campus food waste recycling programs aren’t common in universities. This vermicomposting program was envisioned, researched, developed and currently still operates solely at MSU, holdsing a special place in Barton’s heart.

"It’s something we do," Barton said. "It’s ours."

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