Behind the cafeteria of Santa Monica College, nestled behind a gated fence and dwarfed by two massive garbage dumpsters, there hides one of the college's most prized possessions.
Under a corrugated awning built specifically for this highly publicized treasure, sits a 16-foot steel bin filled with old food and over half a million worms. This enormous machine is an industrial sized vermicomposting bin, an $80,000 investment in sustainable technology that uses the natural process or worm-fueled decomposition to turn SMC's organic food waste into viable soil.
In theory, the bin could recycle up to 600 pounds of food waste per day, saving precious dollars in both waste hauling from the campus, and soil procurement to the campus for our numerous gardens and flowerbeds. But in reality, it doesn't save the campus a dime.
In fact, the college only recycled three tons of food waste for the entire year of 2007, and with the machine's constant energy consumption, upkeep maintenance, and manual labor requirements, it continues to cost more than it saves. But according to SMC faculty, the shining star of SMC's sustainability program was implemented, not to enrich budgets, but to enrich minds.
"It's more of an educational tool," said SMC Grounds Manager Tom Corpus. "If we had it to make money, we would have gotten rid of it a long time ago."
Corpus is adamant about his position that the machine was not purchased to save the school's budget, but to save precious resources by teaching others how they can help live a less wasteful, more sustainable life.
Since the machine was purchased in 2001, it has been vigorously advertised in school literature and around the Santa Monica community as a monumental step towards a more sustainable campus. While claims predicting that the vermicomposting bin could be fiscally beneficial have proved to be purely speculation, its academic advantages continue to be taught through the use and exhibition of the worm bin.
For example, SMC's nine-week Sustainable Works program teaches teams of volunteering students how to live more sustainable lifestyles, and one of the key instruments in educating these teams is a visit to the dumping area behind the cafeteria to see the vermicomposting bin.
"It's something that people come to see the process – not the machine, but what's happening in the machine. It's educational. People come to see it: elementary schools, classrooms here. It's a great tool to educate – we don't make money on it, but it's a great tool. If I bring 30 students to the machine they all leave there impressed," said Corpus.
Corpus also points out that because SMC is a public community college, it wouldn't be feasible to use the vermicomposting machine at its full capacity anyway. Unlike the trays of rationed food supplied by cafeterias in most elementary schools, middle schools and high schools, each scrap of food received at college is individually paid for, making it a lot harder for students to toss those extra morsels in the trash.
"The students in the college, you being one of them, how much food do you waste? How much food do you leave on your plate? Zilch. If you're buying your own food, you're not wasting that food. So there's not that much food waste here," said Corpus. "If it was on the moon it would be feasible," he added.
So if the vermicomposter isn't being used by SMC students, who's using it? According to Recycling Program Specialist Madeline Brodie, lots of people.
As Brodie calculated the total number of visitors exposed to SMC's vermicomposter, it quickly became obvious that the purchase of the vermicomposting bin was less of a strategy to save a few bucks on SMC's energy bills, and more a way to teach environmental awareness in a fun and easily-understood way to thousands of Santa Monica residents.
Brodie fully endorses the machine's role in the community, stating, "I always tell [visitors] that they don't need a machine. That this has all the bells and whistles, and you don't need this. And they can research what other schools are doing, and other schools aren't doing anything like this."
And she's right. In fact, there's only one other machine like it from Vermitech, and it's at the Solana Center in San Diego's Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Essentially, while it is a very large investment in recycling education, it is still educating people about recycling – and that's the whole point of the campus institutions that brought the vermicomposting bin to SMC. Institutions like the Brodie's Recycling Program, and Corpus' Grounds Management team.
"My thing, from where I sit, all I wanna do is make sure things get recycled," Corpus said. And with the help of about half a million worms, he is.