Black Gold

By Rebecca Fanning
Medill Reports

Ed Hubbard has been dreaming up worm businesses since before he could drive. Now the 54-year-old has turned that passion into a business, transforming Chicago’s food waste into valuable soil one crawler at a time.

Just south of the Loop, three blocks from McCormick Place, there’s a patch of land the size of a football field where more than two million worms feast on old food.

Fruits of their labor
Fruits of their labor. These tomatoes were grown in the rich soil processed by Hubbard’s worms.

It’s the first week of November, and a cold spell has hit Chicago. A patchwork of burlap sacks covers the mound, and plastic greenhouse doors flap in the wind. The occasional rogue carrot or bold leaf sprout from a gap in the burlap, and piles of dark brown soil lay drying spread across pieces of old tarp. But below the surface, the worms are hard at work.

Despite the weather, Ed Hubbard and Jonathan Scheffel are here, doing what they’ve done seven days per week, baking sun or freezing rain, for the past two years. The entrepreneurs are founders of Nature’s Little Recyclers and Healthy Soil Compost, businesses who work together to turn food waste into nutrient-rich soil. And both ventures are on the brink of major growth spurts.

“Trash doesn’t stop in Chicago. Nothing stops in Chicago, so we don’t either,” says Hubbard. He and his team, including his son Dale, use a process called vermiculture to produce rich soil which they sell to urban farms. In his football field-sized plot of land in Bronzeville off Martin Luther King Blvd., red wiggler worms devour food scraps, then digest them, producing farm-ready soil in three to four months, less than half the time it takes to compost without the industrious scavengers.

“Trash doesn’t stop in Chicago. Nothing stops in Chicago, so we don’t either.” — Ed Hubbard

Dollars and Cents

Chicago residents compost just two percent of organic waste, according to Hubbard, the rest ends up in landfills where it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet. When compostable items like food scraps, coffee grounds and old denim land at the dump, they also miss the opportunity to create more value.

Fields of brown
Fields of brown. Leaves and other organic material that fall on the field only help the compost process. Here, Ed Hubbard holds rich soil that he scooped from beneath one of his mounds.

“Throwing food in a landfill is like burning money,” Hubbard says. And he should know. Each month, Hubbard’s worm-powered business turns 50 tons of food waste into healthy soil that he sells to the tune of $29.99 for 10 pounds.

In an area infamous for industrial pollution, urban farming is a challenge. Lead-filled soil limits would-be growers’ ability to plant gardens within the city limits. Even Hubbard’s worm farm is required by law to sit on top of a layer of concrete, separating his dirt piles from what could be contaminated soil beneath the surface and keeping it top-quality for his buyers. And that dearth of reliable soil is what makes his nutrient-rich stuff so valuable.

But city-wide composting is not the solution either, at least not yet, Hubbard says.

“The worst thing that could happen would be for the city to mandate composting in Chicago,” says Hubbard, who is looking to raise funds to expand his business three-fold in the next few years. A dramatic increase in organic waste without a parallel infrastructure to match would overwhelm Hubbard’s worm farms and could put him out of business, leaving Chicago’s composting up to commercial operators like Lakeshore Recycling and Waste Management.

Coffee Grounds and Banana Peels

Pedal-powered
Pedal-powered. Jonathan Sheffel and Devon Kondziela at the worm farm as they prepare their rigs to pick up food waste from Chicago residents.

Hardworking worms need to eat. And for now, food waste collection is not widely implemented in Chicago. Healthy Soil Compost collects food waste from private homes, offices, schools and restaurants across the city that opt-in. The company charges $40 per month for weekly compost collection at private residences, and more for commercial pickups depending on size. Scheffel pays the worm farm to process the food waste, and buys back soil at the end of the process. He gives his customers four pounds of what he calls “caviar compost” a few times per year.

“It’s kind of like an ultimate hustle, to get someone to pay for their waste. But it’s obviously something that a lot of people think about,” says Scheffel, who handles more than 7,000 pounds of food waste per week for more than five condo buildings, 330 households and 45 commercial spaces.

“People want to know where their food is coming from more and more,” Scheffel says. “We’re like the small farmers, and people want to know where their food is going to. We’re thriving right now just being this personal connection to it.”

So far, Scheffel’s business has grown entirely through word of mouth, though they’re considering a marketing campaign in the next year to boost awareness and participation.

Compost Igloos

It’s now November and a few snowflakes are falling, but Ed Hubbard isn’t worried about his worms.

“We have the most pampered worms in America,” he says. “They’re Chicago worms, they’re hard-working.“ Hubbard says his Red Wiggler worms can handle temperatures down to freezing, though they start to get sluggish at about 50 degrees. “If they freeze, they die,” he warns. But worm eggs can handle minus 10 degree temperatures for short periods of time, and can stay cold for up to six months.

“My piles never freeze,” he says. “In the winter, these things are like compost igloos.”

While worm digestion itself produces no additional heat, Hubbard and his team use other compost methods to keep the ground between 60 and 80 degrees, an ideal temperature for healthy, productive worms.

“We use traditional composting methods in non-traditional ways,” he says. “It took me a while to figure out the formula, and I froze a lot of worms in the process.”

Hubbard’s formula involves a system of alternating layers to reach the ultimate temperature. The first layer—city waste like coffee grounds and brewer’s grains—heats the ground to 155 degrees as it breaks down, while the second layer—greens, leaves and other materials—won’t produce enough heat to keep the ground from freezing. Neither layer on its own would keep worms alive, but a blend of the two creates an ideal living environment and allows Hubbard to do what no one thought possible, keep worms alive and productive twelve months of the year.

Worm digestion and compost ratios are just one piece of this puzzle. It’s the wigglers’ human counterparts that must reconsider their trash’s economic and environmental potential before it’s dragged out to the curb.

“The benefits of composting on the community and the environment, those are intangible, you don’t get a give-back of those in your lifetime,” Scheffel says. “It’s a hard thing to sell and to say: We should be paying more for our trash because it’s going to help future generations.”

PHOTO AT TOP: A “herd” of Ed Hubbard’s valuable worms which he sells online for $25 per pound. (Rebecca Fanning/MEDILL)