Worms munching on travelers’ trash at Charlotte airport

11/01/2012 12:51 PM

11/02/2012 11:11 AM

One and a half million red wiggler worms originally from Georgia have moved into their new home at Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s recycling center, where they’re devouring food scraps and other trash that air travelers leave behind.

About three years after it was conceived, the $1.1 million recycling center is up and running, and has reduced the trash the airport sends to landfills by about 70 percent, officials said Thursday at the Airport Advisory Committee meeting.

In addition to the worm composting, 15 workers employed by Go Green are also sorting all of the airport’s trash and recycling, and materials such as aluminum, plastic and cardboard are being sold. The leftover organic matter, including food, plant matter and trash such as paper towels, is for the worms, who digest it and excrete nitrogen-rich “castings.”

The worms arrived about a month and a half ago. Once they’ve built up enough castings to harvest, the airport will spread the material on its 6,000 acres, saving money on fertilizer.

Airport terminal manager Bob Lucas, an electrician by trade, has overseen the worm project.

“We’re feeding them, keeping them happy,” said Lucas. “We’ve gone through one hatching, and I’d really like to go through one more before we start harvesting.”

Prices for the other materials sold to recyclers fluctuate month-to-month, Lucas said. Aluminum can sell for $2,000 a ton one month and $1,100 a ton a few months later. The airport splits the profits with Go Green, which the airport also pays to manage the recycling facility.

The recycling center is housed in a 30,000 square foot building that was previously used to prepare airline food, from the days when even flights to Atlanta came with a meal.

Before the worms are fed people’s trash, the material is heated in a giant rotating drum at up to 160 degrees for three days, to kill microbes and pre-compost the trash. What comes out, and goes into the worms, looks and smells a lot like manure.

Officials said the cost of hauling the airport’s trash away was approximately $900,000 a year. Aviation Director Jerry Orr said the cost of operating the recycling center is about $425,000 a year.

Orr said he thinks that within five years, the recycling center will generate enough money to cover its costs and become profitable. In any case, it’s already saving money the airport spent on landfill fees and trucks to haul away its trash. “Garbage is getting very expensive,” said Orr.

One kink that Lucas already worked out is the worm’s tendency to try and wriggle out of their bins when the barometric pressure changes abruptly, as during a thunderstorm. The solution: Turn on bright lights, and they turn around and crawl back in.

Still, Lucas said he’s cautious before making changes to the worms’ environment, testing any new ideas on a small patch first. “I’m not going down the hall and telling Jerry I killed the worms,” said Lucas.

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