It is easy to locate Dr Hasnah Md Jais’ office in the vast campus of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang. Just ask for the cacing (worm) lady and most USM staffers will point you in the right direction.
Since 2000, the associate professor has researched into vermiculture, which is the process of using earthworms to convert organic waste into fertiliser.
Most of us will squirm and cringe at the sight of earthworms but not Hasnah. When checking on her worm bins, she gleefully lifts up a wriggling handful with her bare hands and points them out with childlike delight. She displays a loving affection towards the worms, which she describes as “misunderstood creatures.”
“Most people think they are inferior and dirty. This mindset has to be changed. Worms are actually helpful animals that promote a healthier environment. A common misconception is that they are diseased but only certain worms are harmful to us. A majority of them are beneficial to mankind.”
Hasnah got interested in worms when studying the use of mycorrhiza fungi (fungi which grow on plant roots and share a beneficial association with their hosts) as a method of producing bio-fertiliser (fertiliser generated through biological means). In the course of her research, she discovered that plants grew better in soil rich in organic debris and worms. This led her to believe that earthworms work hand-in-hand with bio-fertiliser. She then began studying earthworms, combining her bio-fertiliser research with vermiculture to come up with what she calls “bio-organic fertiliser.”
Natural disposal method
Malaysians are projected to discard nine million tonnes of waste annually by 2010. Waste disposal and clean-ups will cost more too, in future. Some common disposal methods are landfills, incinerators and composting.
Since almost 65% of our waste is organic stuff, Hasnah believes vermiculture (which is a type of composting method) can be an option - one which produces a valuable product, organic fertiliser. She says vermiculture allows consumers to treat their organic waste at source, thus reducing their reliance on other waste disposal methods.
“Some 80% of landfills are saturated, meaning only 20% is operating. Organic waste in landfills causes pollution and diseases, as well as emits odour. The sludge they produce is also toxic to animals,” says Hasnah.
She says incinerators have their fair share of problems and public objection, too. “They are expensive to run and there are concerns over disposal of the ash. At the same time, burning waste is bad because of pollution, fires and health hazards. And when we burn, all the nutrients in the waste are lost.”
So, for Hasnah, the best way to handle organic waste is through composting. “It can alleviate landfill problems and is more likely to be accepted by communities than the other methods because it is environment-friendly,” she says. She adds however, that composting is good only for organic material.
There are three types of composting: active and passive composting, and vermiculture. Passive composting involves piling organic waste on one spot to decompose. It is a simple but slow process that takes between six months to two years, and faces problems such as pathogen, weeds, and un-decomposed carbon. Organic material also needs to be added continuously.
Active composting takes a shorter time, between two and eight weeks, but requires more labour as the waste heap needs to be turned regularly to ensure it is oxygenated. The problem with this method is that the final product may not be fully degraded. Plants using it will not grow well as it lacks certain nutrients.
That brings us to vermiculture (or worm composting) which, according to Hasnah, is a relatively simple process as long as one has the right materials - a bin to keep the worms, a regular supply of organic waste and obviously, lots of worms.
“It is simple, quick and convenient as you can do it anywhere in the house. You can hang up the bin or place it on the ground. It doesn’t take up a lot of space,” she says.
The worm composting bins do not emit odours. Usually in compost heaps, it is the rotting organic material that smells but in vermiculture, these are eaten by the worms. So, there should not be any odours from the bin - unless there is too much food for the worms to handle. A special group of earthworms is needed for the job - epigeic worms, which are earthworms that do not burrow but live on ground surfaces. Their excreta is a valuable organic fertiliser, being rich in humus and microorganisms.
There are some 3,000 worm species globally but only five are known to be good for vermiculture. They include the brandling or tiger worm (Eisenia fetida), red worm (Lumbricus rubellus) and the blue worm (Perionyx excavatus), which is common in Malaysia.
Worm composting leaves behind worm casting and worm wash (or worm tea, the liquid left in the bin). The casting obtained from vermiculture is superior to other composting products as it is rich in humus, contains a balance of nutrients and has neutral pH (neither acidic nor alkaline). Therefore, it can be used as organic fertiliser or soil conditioner.
The worm tea collected from the bottom of the bin is useful as a natural pesticide. “If you spray the liquid on the leaves of plants, fungus will not attack them,” assures Hasnah.
Besides the benefits to plants, vermiculture products reduce use of chemicals. “Using worms will produce the organic matter which the soil lacks and so there is less need for chemicals. A farmer can halve his chemical use by using organic fertiliser from vermiculture. So he can also save money.”
Vermiculture can also be a potential commercial enterprise. The worms can double their population within two and a half months and the more worms you have, the more waste is treated. Worm populations increase in geometric progression, meaning that the more you have, the more the worms will breed. If one starts off with 2,000 worms (about 1kg), that number will grow to one million within a year.
If each worm costs five sen (based on Australian prices, which are among the lowest in the world), Hasnah projects that one will have RM50,000 worth of worms in a year. In two years, one will have RM50mil worth of worms.
On top of that, the casting can be sold for a good price. In the United States, worm casting sells for almost three times the price of other compost and six to 12 times the price of raw manure.”
What’s in store
At the USM campus, a “worm house” has been built for vermiculture research. Completed in early July, the building is now full with heaps of newspapers, shredded oil palm waste and garden cuttings; all waiting to be devoured by the worms. Hasnah and her assistants study the efficiency of the worms and the quality of casting that results from the different wastes.
Only 2% of Malaysians compost their waste. So Hasnah’s goal is to expand the use of vermiculture. ”I hope Malaysians will be more aware of their own waste and treat it at source, because all the materials they need can be obtained from the soil.” For the public’s convenience, she plans to sell a worm-composting bin, together with a supply of worms. With these, people will have the means to manage their own organic waste at home.
There is already public demand for the technology but the setback is in getting someone to breed the worms. To overcome this obstacle, Hasnah has a pilot project in Kedah where she teaches rural folks to breed worms. She hopes to get enough supply for commercial use at the end of the year.
She says the Agricultural Department in Perlis is composting padi stalks with worms, so the waste need no longer be burnt. She hopes vermiculture technology will catch on in the agricultural sector here, just like how it has in the sugar cane industry in Cuba.
In Vancouver (Canada) where I studied, there is a law that encourages people to treat their organic waste with worms. The authorities gave away worms for free but the residents have to buy the bins,” she says. “The people then have to dispose of their own organic waste. They are not allowed to throw it away or they will be fined. I hope that one day, Malaysia will have something similar.”