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40,000 worms, one perfect learning experience

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The Rock Creek Campus has been called a model for recycling. Now, it also can be called an award-winning model for recycling.

The campus was named “Recycler of the Year” in the Education/Promotion program category by the Association of Oregon Recyclers. The campus received the award for the vermi-composting, which has brought students and community members together and integrated recycling into the curriculum of several programs.

Rock Creek is known for its avid recycling efforts through its loop program, which includes growing cafeteria food in campus gardens and vermi-composting cafeteria food scraps and returning nutrient-rich worm castings to the garden soil. This practice creates a closed-loop system – the heart of sustainable practices.

“The Rock Creek loop program lessens PCC’s carbon footprint by reducing the need for food importation via transportation and by diverting waste from the landfill,” said Alliyah Mirza, the college’s sustainable practices coordinator. “Additionally, it includes curricular components and class involvement.”

Yvonne Norman, PCC graduate

Artichokes growing in the learning garden - Yvonne Norman, PCC graduate

The closed-loop system takes pre-consumer cafeteria scrap, composts it and uses it in the garden to grow food to serve again in the cafeteria. According to Mirza, 650 pounds of food waste per month is being composted from the Rock Creek cafeteria by 40,000 worms residing in the worm bin. The worms eat the food waste and create a nutrient-rich compost that is used in the campus’ learning garden. The garden produces food for the cafeteria food service program – an elegant example of closing the loop. The Washington County Solid Waste and Recycling Program partnered with the college’s Rock Creek Campus and received an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Grant to begin the vermi-composting at the campus.

Yvonne Norman, an AmeriCorps member and a 2008 PCC graduate, said the system has decreased PCC’s waste stream while at the same time producing a valuable product for Rock Creek’s garden. She said it’s also an excellent fit with Rock Creek’s culture, which has embraced recycling of its cafeteria food waste as part of a larger effort toward building a sustainable campus. The college is a Recycle at Work participant, committed to sustainable business practices

It’s easy to see Norman’s excitement. She has taught a few workshops for biology instructor Kevin Lien’s class and has led tours of faculty, staff and the public through the loop program. Farmers from Banks and Yamhill, sustainability groups, hospitals and even big business have visited Rock Creek to view the operation.


“It’s like a community,” Norman said. “I didn’t realize there was this whole connection around worms. I had to do this, because I’m so passionate about it.”

The worms are red wigglers, named because they wiggle when they fall off the compost, and they double in number every 60 to 90 days. They live one year and love to eat manure, limited amount of newspaper, food and coffee grounds. It takes about a year to finish the compost and the strange part is that there is no smell.

“In the wild they are found in manure,” Norman said of the worms. “They like it. Basically, composting with worms means they eat through the decaying food and their poop is called vermi-compost.”

The success of the vermi-composting lies with the partnerships on campus. Jean Atkinson’s Dining Services department leaves food and waste outside in bins for students to collect to add to the compost. Chemistry, biology and service learning students help spread composting duties between them as well as get hands-on work using the recycling effort for their learning garden. Next fall the Building Construction Technology program will build cement slabs to extend the compost, and the welding program will construct new trailers to hold the compost, doubling the vermi-composting capacity.

“It is pretty amazing,” Norman added. “There is a lot of learning that goes along with this.”

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »


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