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[GreenYes] ARTICLE: California EPA and worms
If only every office did this.

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Cal-EPA offices are crawling with worms
2002 San Francisco Chronicle   Page A - 22
Sunday, April 7, 2002

Sacramento -- Among the 213,739 people who work for the state of California,
there is a worm wrangler. His name is Andrew Hurst, and he's the kind of
enjoyable but super-earnest guy who probably gets smirks behind his back.

As the garbage guru in the sprawling Cal-EPA building -- which doesn't allow
large personal garbage cans, only recycling -- the energetic Hurst has
persuaded about 110 bureaucrats to cultivate worm farms under their desks.

Pounds and pounds of the slimy ganglion-controlled creatures slurp apple
cores and other organic material in blue plastic bins scattered in cubicles
throughout the structure, the largest building in Sacramento.

"Ooooh, there is a banana peel in here," says the 31-year-old Hurst, leaning
over his floor's communal bin for nonrecyclable garbage.

He reaches in, thinks better of it, and pulls back his hand. He looks up at
a reporter. "If you weren't here, I'd pull that out and feed it to my
worms."

All state agencies are required by 2004 to reduce the garbage they send to
landfills by 50 percent, but Hurst appears to be the only state garbage
monitor pushing cubicle worm recycling to meet that goal. Hurst's worms are
expected to eat about 10 tons of garbage a year in a program that is
virtually free of cost to the state.

Hurst thinks the worm wrangler title is "cute," but he also calls himself
the "garbage guy for the garbage guys." It's a better title than the one the
state has given him: waste reduction coordinator for the California
Integrated Waste Management Board, where Hurst monitors all recycling
programs -- and worms.


VEGAN CAPITALISTS
Hurst's worms are vegan capitalists. He advises people not to feed them meat
or cheese, since that tends to stink. Each Hurst worm bin also includes a
section from the Wall Street Journal that is moistened and placed over the
worms as a protective cover.

Worms, Hurst says, are shy. But because they have both male and female
reproductive organs, he contends, they can't take or give directions. They
live in covered bins about the size of a large computer monitor.

"I'm not going to lie to you," Hurst said recently while addressing a worm
wrangling class for about 40 state employees. "The worms get up and move
around. They sometimes get out of the bin. They are going to crawl around on
the ends and over the top."

Hurst recommends taking the moist "compost tea" that leaks out of the bottom
and feeding it to office plants. Worms multiply, even though they are
"living in their own excrement," and only survive a year in captivity, Hurst
says.

The class cringes and takes notes.


WORMS ARE PROLIFIC
Eight worms can produce 1,500 in about six months sitting in their bins of
excrement, shaved paper and rotten food. (The worms in each bin can eat
about a quarter-pound of food a day.) Hurst recommends setting some of them
free when it gets too crowded and using the "castings" as fertilizer for
office plants and home gardens.

"Maybe we'll have a worm-harvesting party," says Hurst cheerfully. "Get some
pizza."

Hurst, the son of a fertilizer salesman from the Central Valley, calls
himself a "politically correct conservative" but doesn't see himself as an
"environmental wacko."

"I weigh my garbage," said Hurst, who lives in Woodland with his wife, an
analyst with the state association of counties. "You could put me in therapy
over this. I wanted to see what my waste-diversion rate was. I haven't
crunched the numbers yet."

In recycling bins at another state building, worms ate through an estimated
10 tons of debris over a few years. But the old worm bins were kept in
secret, Hurst said, because the building manager would have freaked.

When all of the state's environmental departments moved into the new Cal-
EPA building a year ago, Hurst broached the subject with the private firm
that manages the structure.


'NOT A CHANCE IN HELL'
"Our first reaction was there is not a chance in hell you are putting those
things in here," said Craig Sheehy of Thomas Properties Group. "My biggest
concern was the smell and who was going to maintain them."

Sheehy is now cheerful about the worm program, and the management company is
paying for 150 bins, which cost about $20 each. Some state employees worry
about mold and flying gnats, but Sheehy said improperly maintained plants
brought in by employees caused more problems.

"I've heard some people are alarmed," said state toxicologist Ned Butler,
who picked up a worm bin last week. "It's sort of the yuck factor, which is
kind of weird for people who work for Cal-EPA. They'll have to get over it."


THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
The worm bins are virtually odorless, claims Hurst, but he nonetheless is
looking into introducing into the bin nematodes that eat the larvae of
fungus gnats.

"I just love that!" he says. "The circle of life."

Hurst isn't surprised that the environmental watchdogs who populate his
building may not embrace his obsession.

"Not many of them eat, drink and sleep garbage like I do," Hurst says.
"Actually, there is probably just one of me."

E-mail Robert Salladay at bsalladay@sfchronicle.com.
2002 San Francisco Chronicle   Page A - 22




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