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A luxury hotel's dirty little secrets

Not-so-miserable worms reduce waste and feed the gardens at the Mount Nelson in Cape Town, South Africa.

October 29, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

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, the scent of cleaning fluid flirts with trash bin odors. Pigeons forage hopefully and the humble cars of hotel staff line up like patient donkeys.

And then there are the worms: something like a 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, since the poor things don't much like publicity. They loathe being hauled into the light to be examined and photographed.

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 compost-like 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 a million in a year.

The pilot project started early this year, and already a 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% 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."

Previously, the organic waste went to pig farms, which eliminated the need for the landfill but did little about greenhouse gas production. The worm scheme was the brainchild of hotel technical services manager Rob Fiander as a way to cut costs and reduce the hotel's environmental harm. At first he kept the worms a secret from management because he feared failure and knew of no other similar hotel project.

"I thought it would be a shambles. No one's done it here before. It's always hard to start a new project," Fiander said.

Vermiculture, or worm farming, was used during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, when 400,000 worms turned the organizing committee's canteen waste into a ton of solid fertilizer and about 265 gallons of liquid fertilizer.

Gibbons, also an air-conditioning and refrigeration trainee at the hotel, thrives on the atmosphere of gilded quality throughout the hotel, built in 1805 as a private residence. The hotel, part of the upscale Orient-Express trains and hotel group, caters mainly to wealthy Britons and Americans. Rich South Africans make up about 20% of its clientele.

"It's a beautiful place to be. The international world is here. It's so 'First World.' That's the thing I like most about it," he said. Above all, he is proud to be manager of the worm farm, a shed in a cool corner shaded with green cloth.

The hotel has been operating since 1899, when shipping magnate Donald Currie needed a place for his English passengers to stay in Cape Town.

The molded ceiling in the hotel lounge is a fabulous plaster confection. At 4 o'clock sharp, an enormous table is covered with towering sticky cakes for a very British high tea. People sip from delicate porcelain cups and talk in hushed voices, as if silenced by the splendor.

Do the worms like cake?

The management is coy about the worms' diet, although newsprint is one of the ingredients. Vermiculture websites generally recommend a mix of vegetables and carbohydrates like bread and pasta, with a dash of cooked eggshells, to absorb acidity and provide the calcium the worms need to multiply.

Shredded damp newsprint is placed on top to keep the atmosphere cool and moist (but not wet). Holes at the top provide air. Holes underneath allow the drainage of what is politely called "worm tea," a brown liquid that makes an excellent fertilizer and has the hotel rose bushes blooming.

"It's inspired a lot of people in the hotel, a lot of the staff," said Orient-Express Africa Managing Director Nick Seewer. "It's funny how people react, even at the most junior level, to trying to better the environment."

He said some other South African hotels had expressed interest in the project, and the hotel had also received many calls from Capetonians wanting to start home worm farms.

"The interest shown by other hotels, but also by Joe Public, is amazing," he said.

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