1000 Worms: Tackling organic food waste in Austria

David and Thomas Witzeneder, two Austrian brothers, are turning organic food waste into vermicompost, 1000 earthworms at a time!

By Julia Migné

While capitalism has taught us to yearn for more material possessions, the actual lifespan of most products seem to decrease every year, turning us slowly into a throw-away society. Couple this with the booming human population and you are left with one very important question: how do we tackle the never ending enormous amount of waste we produce?

Countries have started working on better ways to deal with the exponential mountain of waste. Recycling is now ingrained in most individuals’ habits in Europe. In addition to providing houses with recycling bins, the UK also implemented organic waste bin system to reduce the total amount of waste.

However, this process still requires trucks to pick up the bins and bring them to a landfill where the waste might be either burnt or just dumped there.But what if there was another way to tackle the issue? What if it was actually possible to deal with the wastage in our homes?

That’s the challenge that two brothers from Upper Austria decided to tackle when they launched their startup: 1000 Worms.  David and Thomas Witzeneder combined their skills,  agriculture and carpentry respectively,  and started building wormboxes that people can use in their everyday life to process their organic food waste.

In addition to processing this waste, the worms  also produce two main products: an incredible rich compost called vermicompost and worm tea, a liquid concentrate of worm compost known to boost microbiological activity in soil.

David talked to INKLINE about the incredible abilities of worms and how the wormboxes are changing the way people interact with their organic waste.

INKLINE: Can you tell us a bit more about 1000 Worms and how it all started?

David Witzeneder: When I went to Vienna to study, because I come from the countryside, I noticed that there were no organic waste bins. Usually in the countryside you separate everything and you put organic waste in the compost or somebody picks it up but in Vienna there was no separation. It was problematic for me to put the organic waste into the rubbish bin because it’s not where it should be put.

I figured out that things like vermicomposting existed and that there were people trying to find a solution to the problem of disposal of wastage. With the knowledge that I gained,  I made my first wormbox. I got some worms via post, made the box and I found out that it was quite easy to do. If you have an idea, more or less, of what you are doing then it’s really helps!

Two or three years ago as I was finishing my studies I was wondering what am I going to do? It was then I realised that I’m very curious about the worms and I’m very interested in solving this problem of organic waste in the rubbish bins.

So I decided to make wormboxes and I made them as a do it yourself kit with workshops. My brother who is a carpenter knows how to deal with the wooden aspect of it so he joined me. After 3 years and few hundreds boxes, we’ve got more experience and wisdom about the worms!

I: Which issues did you face when building your first couple of boxes? 

D: The only problem at the beginning was that there was no drainage! As one of the things produced by the worms is worm tea [which is liquid], it escaped from the box once and it was all over our floor which was a real mess!

I: You produce two different types of boxes: the Hungry Bin and the Wooden Wormseats. What’s the difference between them?  

D: For me it was always important to have at least two functions and that comes out of that permaculture thinking that every object should have at least two functions. So worms are working inside the Wooden Wormseat but it is also a seat because they are usually for people who are living in the city who don’t have a lot of space and who might also need a seat so that when their friends or guests come, they have a place to sit.

I built the first box and hundreds of other boxes followed. I figured out quite a clever system and we added the seat and the wheels so you can move it around as it becomes quite heavy with time.

The Hungry Bin is for families because it’s up to 2kg of organic waste a day which is quite a lot! The average person in Europe produces 150g of organic waste per day and it requires more or less 1000 worms to eat this amount. So the hungry bin is just a bigger version of the vermicomposting product and is placed outdoor.

I: How did people initially react to the idea of seating on a worm box?

D: The first group thought it was quite weird because they were disgusted by worms. The second group was amazed by the end of the day after the whole visit and meeting where we talked about the worms and the issue of waste and rubbish bins. Generally everybody is happy about it and likes it.

I: How does the seat work exactly?

D: For a flat with two people, it takes around one year to fill it because actually 70% of the organic waste is water. When the worms start to eat it, then the water goes down and its producing worm tea which is collected in another box below the worms. So you have one product that is the worm tea and the second product you have is the vermicompost. Through this process, the organic waste loses its volume.

It’s like if you put 20 bags of organic waste inside, you get one bag of vermicompost, so only 5% of the initial volume remains in the box! Every half a year to a year you need to empty it and the process is explained inside the box.

nutrient circle_2
A wormbox’s cycle @1000 Worms

I: Do you need to replace the worms during the year or do worms live long enough to survive an entire year inside?

Earthworms live in average up to seven years!

D: If you just feed them with coffee ground, they’ll live months because then they don’t get all the nutrients they need but usually if you feed them correctly they live around seven years.

They are also filtering all the heavy metals so if you put organic waste with pesticide on it, they will accumulate the pesticides in their bodies so you when you take out the compost there are no pesticides and no heavy metals in anymore and that’s pretty amazing!

I: How do you select your worms?

D: I bought some worms to start with initially and now we are starting to breed our own  red worms (Eisenia foetida). We started to produce them on our own and feed them. It’s really important to look at the vitality of the worms because there can be some worms that are not so healthy!

Wurmkiste_digi-53
Worms have the ability to degrade organic waste and to produce an incredibly rich compost. © 1000 Worms

I: What is the main challenge you faced during the creation of 1000 Worms

D: There are always moments when you think ‘this is so crazy’ and you cannot stand it and start thinking that it’d be much easier if you were doing something conventional like having a job from 8 to 5 and getting a salary.

It is tough but you need to stay calm and think: ‘Okay, it’s worth it. It’s a good thing that I’m doing this.’ And we like what we are doing. So it’s a good feeling. And I think we are on the right path.

I: What’s coming next for you at 1000 Worms?

D: We want to make a program about vermicomposting for people that would be as easy to understand as possible. Because the box is perfect -well there are always things that you can improve- but people need to completely understand what it means to have worms at home so we want to make it easier to understand.

Also as soon as there is somebody, let’s say in Great Britain, who is also interested in building these boxes and if they contact us then we can work together because we have the knowledge. It wouldn’t make sense to ship them the boxes from Austria to the UK when they should be produced  there directly. They also have good carpenters there so we would be happy if someone from Great Britain or any other country as well said ‘Okay, let’s work together and let’s make boxes!’

wurmkiste.at David Witzeneder 4
Having a wormbox at home is a great way to take care of your garden in addition of reducing your waste impact. © 1000 Worms

I: Any advice for the Inkliners who want to launch their own businesses?

D: They should do it! You don’t lose so much. The worst thing you can lose is one or two years of your life and I mean the experience that you get is so amazing that it’s worth doing it!

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