‘The Solution Lies in the Problem’: A Reflection on Worm Composting, Community Business and the ‘Making Places Last’ Conference

Flashback to July 2017: I was invited by my friend Malcolm Currie (co-operator and chair of Uplands Co-operative Allotments Association) to attend a monthly gathering called Green Drinks. Over dinner, Malcolm invited each person to share a bit about their involvement in the ‘green’ movement. I mentioned something about my fascination with worm composting, and about our residents’ association experimenting with how worms can help us ‘flip the food waste equation’ into a practical solution.

Mentioning worm composting over dinner is usually a sure-fire conversation stopper, but in this group, it got a good hearing. In fact, it got me a speaking gig at a recent event called “Making Places Last: Sustainable Homes and Communities.

One of the organisers, David Middleton, put the invitation to me something like this:  Most of the people at this conference know the big picture: the statistics about populations growth, high-energy demands, and why we need low carbon, sustainable solutions for the future, etc. We need to hear real-life examples of what is happening right now to deliver change. Come tell us about the power of worms and how we can work with them!

I told him that in addition to the “aspiring urban worm farmer” hat, I wore a “social enterprise adviser” hat with Co-operative Futures, supporting local groups to set up community businesses around their shared passions and common purpose. So, we agreed that I would do the presentation wearing both hats. My presentation revolved around a basic principle that related both to worm composting and community business: the solution lies is in the problem…

I began by telling a story (including slides and a show-and-tell moment with my mobile wormery) about what’s happening on the ground – and in the soil!

  • how neighbours from our residents’ associations manage a community compost scheme at City Hospital Greenhouses;
  • how we are inspired both by global movements to reduce waste and by local allies like The Real Junk Food Project Birmingham, and how we are experimenting with “flipping the food waste equation” to care for the earth and for people; and …..
  • how worm composting is key micro-practice in the whole design.

In case you’re wondering, here’s what the basic system looks like:

  • we collect food waste which we then mix with a carbon-rich material (ex: shredded paper, wood shavings) in equal parts, continuing to turn them for 10 days in a Ridan food waste composter;
  • we feed this ‘pre-compost’ to worms (red wigglers or tiger worms) who digest and ‘amend’ this into rich compost (or what we affectionately call ‘Magic Manure’ or ‘black gold’);
  • we grow food with this compost, thereby closing the loop …

More recently, with the passionate support of Anna de la Vega at Urban Worm, worms are also flipping the food waste equation on the J-Wing at HMP Birmingham and on the rooftop garden at Argent College in the Jewellery Quarter.

Telling these stories at the one day conference led to some interesting follow-up conversations in the break-out sessions, and it brings me back here to the key take-away / principle that I mentioned earlier:

 The solution lies in the problem.

Let me unpack that:

  • What’s the problem? Birmingham alone throws away 700 tons of food / week, and 43% of all the waste in Birmingham is food-related (and 60% of that is compostable).
  • As a solution: worm composting is a scalable process capable of reversing the high energy, high waste, high hidden costs of the current one-way industrial flow that results in such food waste.
  • As a solution: worm composting is low-energy, low/zero waste, low hidden cost, biological process. It is a sustainable, and I would even say “regenerative” design model that begins with a micro-practice. Micro in the sense that a) it depends on an invisible army of microbial life to do its work; and b) it can be scaled from a small operation in a student flat or community kitchen up to the size of an anchor institution such as a prison or a hospital.

-A parallel problem to food waste is the “waste of people”:  With growing unemployment in my area, we see too many people disconnected from meaningful activity, especially from direct participation in the food cycle.

Therefore, recalling the phrase “the solution lies in the problem,” the question that these local experiments with worm composting raise is: Is it possible to address the problem of ‘wasted food’ and ‘wasted people’ by introducing worms to ‘close the loop’ on waste as close as possible to where we live?

Discovering that ‘the solution lies in the problem’ means putting back together what belongs together, but has been separated. Practically, we are talking about a design solution in which:

Food waste + lots of worms + lots of human labour = closing the nutrient/energy loop and remaking the soil of our place…


Unlike an industrial model which yields only one output and multiple problems, here our solution obtains multiple yields:

  • convivial work and meaningful activity (=it’s good for people)
  • human design that aligns with and enhances biological processes (=it’s good for nature/the environment)
  • lots worms AND their ‘magic manure’ (=marketable high-value products) *

*(By the way: A quick Google search reveals that the retail value of red wigglers / tiger worms is somewhere between £23-£28/kilo!)

Worm composting is an example of discovering how the solutions we are looking for are present inside the problem that we face.  This is also where community business comes in as it is part of the solution to the problem. If worm composting functions is a scalable solution to the massive problem of food waste, then we need to form legal structures that enable worm composting initiatives to:

-remain locally rooted;

-trade for the benefit of the local community;

-be accountable to the local community;

-offer broad community impact.

In this way, worm composting combined with a community business model offers an inspiring example of how our local communities can turn their problems into solutions –taking our cues from what is happening right now to design places that last.


Written by Sam Ewell on behalf of Co-operative Futures for the USE-IT Programme