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Searching for the new black gold

No less than 18 million earthworms have helped Monmouth County Council more than double its recycling rate in less than a year. And plans are afoot to extend the service to include kitchen waste. Using worms to create compost vermicomposting is not new; but the scale of the Monmouthshire project sets it apart from its peers. As does the San Franciscan multi-millionaire and Nicaraguan backdrop which are said to be catalysts for the project.

Unlikely as it may seem, this story begins with a scene reminiscent of TV show Miami Vice. On leaving the British army, Wormtech chairman Graham Owen could not have expected his fledgling career as a bodyguard to involve worms. So, it was with a degree of surprise that he found himself in South America protecting a Californian multi-millionaire who had made his fortune from worm-created organic fertiliser. Impressed with what he saw, Owen recognised the opportunities offered by worm composting and decided to bring them back to the UK.

A couple of years down the line, with research projects and trials successfully completed, Welsh-based Owen approached Monmouth County Council with plans for a pilot green waste scheme. Without any landfill sites of its own, the council was acutely aware of the amount of waste being transported to neighbouring areas and was anxious to find a way to reduce this. Developing a composting facility based within Monmouthshire was high on the list of solutions, providing an ideal means of reducing transport movements while simultaneously improving waste diversion rates.

Although not the only green waste solution investigated by the council, the Wormtech in-bunker composting system proved the most attractive and has subsequently become popular with both the authoritys recycling team and residents alike.

We were keen to instigate an in-house solution for our green waste, explained council waste strategy officer Paul Quayle. We launched this project in July 2003 and are already collecting from 80% (30,000) of the councils households. In that time our recycling rate has doubled to 22%.

The council works in close partnership with Wormtech to provide a weekly green waste collection using dedicated vehicles sporting the eye-catching worm logo and biodegradable, transparent bags made from maize starch. Garden waste, cardboard and paper can be collected, although the council does provide alternative recycling routes for both cardboard and paper.

Once collected, the green waste is transferred to Wormtechs newly developed in-bunker composting facility, located on a decommissioned US army base in Caerwent.

Initially we were looking to build a completely new composting plant, says Owen. But the Caerwent site was remote and did not have any planning issues, which can be a massive problem with this type of infrastructure.

The site houses three composting buildings and each one holds nine custom-designed in-bunker vessels. Each bunker can be used to store up to 70 tonnes of green waste, but, says Owen, this can be expanded as required.

Interestingly, the system, which has been developed in conjunction with Cardiff Universitys Compost Research Centre, has been designed to meet the exacting standards required for the processing of food waste an area that both the county council and Wormtech hope to expand into before the end of the year.

In-bunker systems, as opposed to the more traditional in-vessel composters, allow us to handle 10 times as much waste, says Owen. And that expansion in capacity may well be crucial.

Owen says the Welsh Assembly has plans to increase the composting market from its current 40,000 tonnes a year to as much as 300,000 tonnes a year, and that situation is reflected across the whole of the UK. Thats a lot of compost. Owen is certain that this massive increase in production will send market prices tumbling.

At the moment green waste compost sells for as much as £10, but this could be more than halved in years to come. The only way for composti

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