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One Airport's Trash Is 2 Million Worms' Treasure

Dec 18, 2012
Originally published on December 20, 2012 3:16 pm

Food waste is not just a problem for restaurants — airports also have to deal with piles of this kind of garbage.

At one of the nation's busiest airports, Charlotte Douglas International in North Carolina, each passenger generates half a pound of garbage on average per visit. But instead of just sending all that trash to the landfill, Charlotte has taken a different approach. It's the first airport to put worms to work dealing with trash.

Yes, worms.

Before the worms get a whack at the airport waste, there's some human work required. Twenty-five tons of trash a day tumbles onto a conveyor belt under the supervision of Charlotte Airport housekeeping manager Bob Lucas.

"You see it coming down off the cascade up there," Lucas says. "What that does is, it gives it like a waterfall effect. So it spreads it out on the belt a little bit more."

A dozen employees pluck out recyclables and sort through aluminum, plastic and more, so passengers don't have to do the sorting in the terminal.

In the four months since this operation got under way, trash going from the Charlotte airport to the landfill is down an impressive 70 percent. Recyclables are crushed, baled and sold for cash. There are shirts sorted and laundered and donated, and plastic cups collected. (The shirts come from people who toss clothing when they suddenly discover their suitcases are too heavy.)

The organic stuff — waste from airport restaurants, food scraps off planes, and the half-eaten Cinnabon that a traveler has tossed out — mixes in a big tank for a few days to start the composting process. Then it's time for the stars of this show to take over.

"There's the workers," Lucas says, digging his fingers into the top layer of a 50-foot-long composting bin, "1.9 million of them."

They are common backyard red wigglers, about 3 inches long, a quarter-inch around — and hungry. Lucas says they eat half their weight a day.

"I have not heard of another airport that does that," says Katherine Preston, environmental affairs director for Airports Council International-North America.

And that's with good reason. First of all, recycling and worm composting take space many airports don't have.

Plus, worms are finicky and — as Lucas recently learned — prone to crawling out en masse at times. That resulted in a panicked call to the guy who sold him the worms.

"First thing I told him: 'They're trying to leave.' And he said, 'Get a light and stick it under the bed.' And they just turn around and go back in and they're happy," Lucas says.

Light on. Crisis averted. If Lucas can keep the worms happy, they'll soon be producing enough worm poop to fertilize all of the airport's flower beds and shrubs, Lucas says.

Worm poop. Go ahead and giggle. Charlotte officials sure did as they debated the $1.2 million it cost to launch the program. But they're not laughing now: The airport expects to be making money off its trash in five years.

Copyright 2012 WFAE-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wfae.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You've heard the saying one person's trash is another's treasure. Well, in Charlotte, North Carolina they're taking that very seriously. The average passenger at the airport there generates a half pound of garbage, and officials are trying to turn more of that waste into cash.

Lots of airports recycle, some even compost but, as Julie Rose of member station WFAE reports, Douglas International is the first to compost using worms.

JULIE ROSE, BYLINE: Before the worms get a whack at the airport waste, there's some human work required.

BOB LUCAS: You see it coming down off the cascade up there.

ROSE: Twenty-five tons of trash a day tumble onto a conveyor belt under the supervision of Charlotte Airport housekeeping manager Bob Lucas.

LUCAS: What that does is it gives it like a waterfall effect. So it spreads it out on the belt a little bit more.

ROSE: A dozen employees pluck out recyclables so passengers don't have to do the sorting in the terminal.

LUCAS: Cardboard, you've got a designated person here for aluminum, plastic. Clothes and cups were the two biggest shocks.

ROSE: Clothes?

LUCAS: A passenger goes to the ticket counter and they find out their bag's two pounds overweight, versus paying the additional fee, they'll throw a shirt or two away.

ROSE: Lucas got some ladies from a local church to launder the clothes and donate them to charity. The cup conundrum has been tougher to solve. A bin next to the conveyor belt is piled high with those clear plastic cups you get with your soda on the plane. Lucas says a flight attendant will use a couple out of a package and throw the rest away, unused.

LUCAS: It's probably airline standard but we're trying to work with them 'cause, you know, I mean, to me that's a big waste.

ROSE: In the four months since this operation got under way, trash going from the Charlotte Airport to the landfill is down an impressive 70 percent. Recyclables are crushed, baled and sold for cash. The organic stuff - waste from airport restaurants, food scraps off planes, and the half-eaten Cinnabon you toss out - mixes in a big tank for a few days to start the composting process. Then it's time for the stars of this show.

LUCAS: There's the workers.

ROSE: Lucas digs his fingers into the top layer of a 50-foot-long composting bin.

LUCAS: One-point-nine million of them.

ROSE: They're a special kind of worm?

LUCAS: They are your backyard red wigglers.

ROSE: About 3 inches long, a quarter-inch around and hungry - really hungry.

LUCAS: They eat half their weight a day.

KATHERINE PRESTON: I have not heard of another airport that does that.

ROSE: And that's with good reason, says Katherine Preston. She's environmental affairs director for Airports Council International-North America.

First of all, recycling and worm composting takes space many airports don't have. Plus, worms are finicky and, as Lucas recently learned, prone to crawling out en masse when the barometric pressure changes. Imagine his panicked call to the guy who sold him the worms.

LUCAS: First thing I told him, I said they're trying to leave. He said, get a light and stick it under the bed. And they just turn around and go back in. And they're happy.

ROSE: Light on, crisis averted. If Lucas can keep the worms happy, they'll soon be producing enough nutrient-rich castings to fertilize all of the airport's flower beds and shrubs.

LUCAS: Castings is worm poop.

ROSE: Worm poop.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSE: Go ahead and giggle. Charlotte officials sure did as they debated the $1.2 million it cost to launch the program. But they're not laughing now. The airport expects to be making money off its trash in five years.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.