Global Worming

By Shira Tevah, ‘09

Photography by Dan Dry

Alexander Muir, ’09, lives with worms—for composting. He and his two roommates obtained the vermiculture creepers, a type of earthworm that quickly reproduces and digests organic matter, during April’s Earth Week 2008, when they were handed out for free at one of many activities aimed at making students’ lifestyles more sustainable.

The worms were brought to the U of C by Zoé Vangelder, ’09, with a $1,000 grant from the Uncommon Fund, a student activities fund that underwrites innovative projects. She used the money to buy 40 pounds of red wrigglers, Eisenia fetida—at $20 a pound—and 60 plastic boxes to house them. With the leftover money, Vangelder, cochair of the Sustainability Council, will conduct more worm workshops this fall. The council, a four-year-old advisory body of students, faculty, and administrators, holds open meetings twice a quarter, encouraging collaboration among campus environmental initiatives and making recommendations to University administrators on sustainable-purchasing and energy-efficiency policies.

Photo: Worms As the earthworm turns: Alexander Muir’s vermiculture worms feed on shredded newspaper and fruit and vegetable peelings. He uses the compost to grow basil.

Muir was one of 60 students to take home half a pound of worms, which were in such high demand Vangelder had to make a waiting list. A biology major, Muir sees the plant-waste–eating worms as “an interesting science experiment that’s fun and not time-intensive.” He started the worms, living under his kitchen table, with shredded newspaper and small amounts of fruit and vegetable peelings. Gradually they converted both paper and waste into “nice, dark soil that’s really good for planting,” and Muir added more organic matter to the box.

“It’s not like an outdoor compost pile,” Muir explains, “because it’s inside so you want to keep it clean. You have to be careful not to put in too much waste, or the wrong kind.” The worms can digest vegetables, coffee grounds, even crushed eggshells—but not meat, fat, or dairy products. The waste must be buried in the soil and not simply placed on the surface.

When Muir went home for a week before returning to Hyde Park for the summer, he left his 2-by-1–foot box of worms, labeled “compost,” with summer renters whom he hadn’t met. On his return, he realized he should have left a more instructive note: one of the subletters had put too many leftover beans in the box, and it had accumulated fruit flies, spiders, and rot—“a big box of disgusting.” He cleaned the mess and left the box on the porch for a month to get rid of the odor, gradually rebuilding the worms’ composting capacity. The worms adjust to their environment, Muir says, and are restricted only by the size of the box: “If there’s a shortage of food, the worms naturally reduce their population, and if there’s more food they increase it.” He now feeds the worms most of his fruit and vegetable trash and uses some of their soil to grow potted basil.

“Wormalution,” as eco-conscious students call it—its practitioners are “wormalutionaries”—was demonstrated in a requisite April workshop by Cecelia Ungari, conservation programs coordinator for the Shedd Aquarium. Other Earth Week programs included a tour of Hyde Park’s trees, panels on urban agriculture and environmental justice, and the Tap Water Challenge—in which students compared the taste of tap water to bottled and learned why tap is more sustainable. Eric Heineman, hired in February as the University’s first sustainability-project manager, coordinated the Earth Week schedule. “What was exciting to me here,” says Heineman—who has a bachelor’s in environmental studies from the University of Vermont and has worked at greening two Chicago-area schools—“was all the different student groups, who are very active and interested and all have their own niche.” Seven campus environmental groups, as well as individuals from the Graham School and the Law School, planned Earth Week activities.

“Students really pushed the school to create this position,” Heineman says of his new job. “They wanted someone who could be engaged full time” in campus environmentalism. Heineman answers primarily to the Sustainability Council, a group he appreciates because “anyone can bring ideas” to the twice quarterly meetings. To assist the group’s goals, in early August he launched a new Web site, It offers information about environmental student groups; academic offerings, including the Program for the Global Environment; and links to local and national resources on sustainability, such as the City of Chicago’s recycling program.

Heineman describes the site as “an institutionalized place for sustainability.” He plans to add a Sustainability Council blog as well as one for event managers to compare caterers’ earth-friendliness. His non-Web plans are equally extensive. He wants to work with the Study Abroad Office to establish a program for students to study the environment around the world. He hopes to organize a tree-planting day through the Community Service Center to help offset the University’s carbon footprint. Also on his list of possibilities: a field trip to a local blue-cart recycling plant and urban gardens that make use of Woodlawn’s empty lots.

Campus environmentalists are full of ideas and plans that sometimes encounter kinks. For example, when Muir’s roommate saw his composting worms, she “screamed so loudly the neighbor called 911,” he said. One student lost his worms when roommates mistook them for garbage and threw them out; another admitted to having “ceased their upkeep,” and several students who left Chicago for the summer never found temporary caretakers. But the worms are only a small part of a greater strategy that students and administrators hope will make the school—and the world—greener.

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Sustainability at the University of Chicago