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Originally published Monday, October 30, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Hotel worms its way out of pile of waste

Every hotel has its hidden back door, where the tinkle of piano music and clinking champagne glasses give way to the roar of air conditioners...

Los Angeles Times

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Every hotel has its hidden back door, where the tinkle of piano music and clinking champagne glasses give way to the roar of air conditioners and refrigeration units.

Out back of South Africa's oldest and grandest hotel, the Mount Nelson, where the scent of cleaning fluid flirts with trash-bin odors, there are worms: something like 1 million of them, according to resident worm farmer Shaun Gibbons. This army of invertebrates munches through mountains of the hotel's organic waste, reducing it to fertilizer and compost for the hotel's nine acres of luxuriant gardens.

In the process, the worms are cutting Mount Nelson's contribution to landfills and to the greenhouse gases produced by decaying waste.

Gibbons gingerly dipped his fingers into a crate of worms in the hotel's worm farm, clucking sympathetically — the poor things don't much like publicity.

Pineapple peels, tomatoes, mango skins, lettuce and potatoes all find their way into the hotel's chilled trash-sorting rooms and make great food for worms, which consume their own weight daily. The end product, so to speak, is vermicast, a compostlike substance rich in nitrogen and potassium.

The worms — a Canadian variety in this case — multiply rapidly, leaving small cocoons in the soil, each producing several more worms. Two worms can multiply to 1 million in a year.

The pilot project started early this year, and already one-third of the hotel's organic waste goes to the worms, saving a lot of money in disposal fees and fertilizers.

The hotel aims to process about 70 percent of its organic waste by next year.

"The hotel industry produces a lot of food waste," said Gibbons, taking the lid off one worm crate and prodding the soil.

"We're trying to deal with our problem and not pass it along to the next person. We're trying to do our little bit for nature.

"My personal opinion: The more people who get involved in this, the better it will be for the whole world. It eliminates a substance, methane gas, which is damaging to the environment. It's helping the ozone."

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