BACK OF THE YARDS — From inside a funky-smelling semitrailer wash bay, Ed Hubbard evangelizes the power of the humble earthworm — those slimy, slithering wonders capable of chomping away at food waste.
"We didn't know how much a problem waste is. I mean, we thought we knew, but you don't really know until you know," said Hubbard, the curly-haired, bespectacled founder of Nature's Little Recyclers, a worm farm specializing in the production and sale of red wiggler worms and the nutrient-rich compost they help create.
The business began in earnest at The Plant, the sustainable food production and business incubator in Back of the Yards, which in 2012 gave Hubbard a few hundred square feet to begin harvesting his worms.
Casey Cora says Hubbard hopes 20 percent of the city's waste will go through his farm:
Since then, the operation has moved to its new industrial space at 48th Street and Aberdeen Avenue and expanded to include some 2 million worms, most of which are neatly tucked away in stack of bins as they eat discarded food scraps, cardboard and even T-shirts. (Hubbard maintains a "Will They Eat It?" video series on his website.)
The worms have diverted 50 tons of food waste and cardboard from landfills since the company's inception. They are now on pace to divert 2,000 pounds of waste each month.
The process, known as vermicomposting, essentially works like this: food scraps are brought to Nature's Little Recyclers by several businesses and individuals, including Urban Canopy, Chicago Honey Co-Op, Goose Island brewery and Jon Scheffel, who launched his bike-based food scrap collection business earlier this year. The businesses pay a small processing fee for the service.
Volunteers then load plastic bins with layers of food scraps, compost, worms, eggs and burlap, and over the course of about three months, the worms excrete "vermicast" — aka worm poop — a fertilizer that helps create "very good, very strong, very powerful" soil for growing plants, Hubbard said.
The worms are then sifted out of the composting soil.
About half of the worms are sold online for $18.99 pound. The rest are sent back into the bins or grounded up for food at fish farms.
The soil, meanwhile, is shipped back out to urban farms or used in the worm bins.
In addition to selling worms — at a rate of 2 to 10 pounds per day — Nature’s Little Recyclers also sells their “Caviar Compost” in 2-pound bags ($3.99) or in bulk for $1 per pound. Need a whole worm compost kit? They’ll set you up with everything for $200.
The entire system is designed to use everything and waste nothing.
And where the Hubbards see environmental salvation in their worm bins, they also see a major opportunity in the $43 billion waste industry. They're keeping a close eye on the city's plans for a "green belt" urban farming district on the South Side, with hopes to supply the farming efforts with his worm-enriched compost.
But so far, many of their potential investors — the deep pockets they'll one day need to expand into a huge facility — have balked.
"There's just starting to be investment in this area, but you have to have a society that has an appetite for 'green.' Until people lose their appetite for landfills, this is still the second-best alternative," said Hubbard, of Jefferson Park.
Hubbard, who gave up his career in software engineering to pursue the worm business, is hoping to one day divert 20 percent of the city's food waste into his worm farm, an ambition that could carry serious environmental impact.
Sent to landfills, food waste can be a "significant source" of greenhouse gases, so diverting into recycling and composting "has the potential for huge environmental and economic benefits," said Katie Yocum Musisi, spokeswoman for Delta Institute, a Chicago-based environmental group.
Dale Hubbard, 30, joined up with his father after having something "almost like an epiphany" about America's waste stream. He watched a trailer full of spent grain from the Goose Island brewery get diverted away from a landfill and into a cattle farm to feed cows.
"After [Nature's Little Recyclers] went from something experimental to larger, I started learning about earthworms and how they eat cardboard and compost, and how they keep trash out of our landfills and makes good compost for farmers, and I was like, 'Wow, this makes so much sense, someone's gotta be doing this,'" he said.
Turns out, large-scale vermicomposting hasn't really taken off in the United States, although there are some efforts aimed at backyard composters in cities like Seattle and San Francisco, which have mandated residential composting, and in New York City, which has launched a voluntary composting program that could soon become mandatory.
Chicago also has its share of composting interest, from backyard composters to grassroots collection services, but probably nothing parallels the vision the Hubbards have laid out.
"I just thought it was a really good idea, and so I got on board," Dale Hubbard said. "So that's where we're at today, just growing worms."
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