Machine-Shredded Paper

With machine-shredded paper, we come to one of the most neglected, yet plentiful sources of worm-bedding material. In every populated area of the modern world can be found office-buildings, libraries, schools, police stations, and countless other locations that have in common the fact that they produce amazing amounts of waste paper each and every day. A tremendous portion of this paper is simply shredded, placed into plastic bags, and sent off to the local landfill. All it usually takes to obtain this material is to ask the office manager, the janitor, or whoever is in charge of the particular site, for permission to haul it away, and your bedding requirements are satisfied. (If you tell them it's for your worms, they may look at you a little strangely in the beginning, but that's something we should all be used to by now.)

For most regular-sized, indoor vermicomposting operations, one location will suffice to provide all the bedding that is necessary. Since the material is already shredded, the work-load is reduced to transporting the paper to your home, moistening the required amount, and installing it in the bed. By giving a little consideration to the "disadvantages" listed below, and keeping them in mind when you pick a location, you can have all the safe bedding your worms require, for very little effort, and you will be doing something that is environmentally friendly at the same time. For that matter, if enough in-home vermiculturists each absorbed part of the waste from one or more of these sources, it would not be long before a large amount of paper was being dealt with in a much more suitable manner than it presently is. In that situation, everyone is a winner. Just before we discuss the disadvantages, let's take a look at the more positive aspects of this potential bedding source.

Among the advantages of machine-shredded paper can be found the following items:

  1. Availability.
    As I've already stated, there is not a populated area in the world that doesn't produce large amounts of this substance. Aside from the sources I listed above, keep in mind any location that produces flyers, such as the kind that are stacked in grocery or department stores, informing patrons of weekly, or daily specials. Any government office is a pretty sure bet, as are local telephone, or utility companies. With just a little effort, I'll bet anyone can come up with a list of 10 or 12 possible sources of various shredded papers. And if you belong to any kind of group or organization that includes several vermiculturists, the purchase of a community paper-shredder might be an investment worth considering. (Choosing your own source of raw material to shred will help you overcome the most significant of the disadvantages involved in dealing with this choice of bedding.)
  2. Consistancy.
    This advantage is reliant on the fact that you first find a suitable source, and then stick with it. If you are fortunate enough to find a location that not only produces safe material, but enough of it that you have no need to use an additional outside source, hang onto it by fostering a good relationship with the producer of the material. You are performing a service for them by eliminating a certain amount of their waste problem, and they in turn are doing you a favor by supplying you with a free source of bedding material. If each of you appreciates the efforts of the other, there should never be a problem. If the source you have found produces a large amount of waste material, you may even want to introduce the producer to another vermiculturist or two. The producer will see even more of the waste being taken care of, and you may also advance your friendships with your fellow wormers.
  3. Cleanliness and Lack of Odor.
    This is another of the substances that are usually a pleasure to work with. Though machine-shredded paper can suffer from the same smudging problem as newsprint (since that could be the shredded paper you find yourself dealing with), it is already shredded, so the problem is nowhere near as bad. Odors are never a problem, and as I've mentioned elsewhere, I consider that to be a major plus.
  4. Cost.
    What can I say? Completely free, unless you count the cost of hauling it, and if you choose your source wisely, transportation should never amount to much. Even if you put out the expense of purchasing one of the community-use shredders I mentioned earlier, the actual bedding material you can produce with it will cover your costs in a very short period of time. If you take into account the labor you'll save by not having to shred the paper manually, you may even agree that the machine is profitable in the literal sense of the word. (That depends on just how much bedding material you have a need for.)
  5. Diversity.
    Like peat moss, machine-shredded paper can be used to bulk up other bedding materials that are simply too dense. By keeping the bedding loose, the worms will be healthier, and happier (Willy assures me that this is true ), in addition to the fact that you are a lot less likely to encounter anaerobic conditions.
Among the disadvantages of machine-shredded paper can be found the following items:
  1. Possible Contamination.
    This point makes up the largest possible difficulty when using machine-shredded paper as worm-bedding. Furthermore, the problem (at least as far as I, or anyone I'm aware of, has been able to determine) lies not in the possibility of endangering the health of your worm population, but in the possible health risks to yourself, or your family, if a contaminated source of raw material is used.

    The problem lies in the area of obtaining waste material that has been used in a photocopier, and the main area of concern is the toner used in the photocopy process. (Toner is the powdery ink substance used to produce a photocopy, and may be plastic, or chemical in nature.) Since very little laboratory research has been done in the area of problems caused by transferring these artificial substances into the food chain, we have no way of knowing what ill effects might be caused by ingesting food grown in soil that has been enriched with compost containing these substances. We can assume, however, that since a worm's diet consists strictly of organic matter, these inorganic materials are passing through the worm's digestive tract, and becoming somewhat concentrated in the resulting casts. (The same situation occurs with the heavy metals contained in some sewage sludges. After being consumed by worms, the result is less overall volume to dispose of, but higher percentages of contamination in the remaining material.)

    Since we are talking about your own health, and the health of your family or friends, I think if a mistake is to be made, we should err on the side of caution, and at the very least, follow some simple precautionary guidelines:

    • If any bedding material in your worm-bin originated from a photocopier source, then the resulting casts should only be used in soil mixes intended for use in potted plants, and care should be taken that the above-mentioned potting soil is properly disposed of after use. This means taken to a landfill site, rather than being added to your garden. (Remember to also avoid discarding the used potting soil on your lawn, since ingestion by your neighborhood birds might simply result in a more roundabout entry of the contaminants into the food-chain.)
    • If you are unsure about the origin of the bedding material, then treat it in the manner stated above. And finally,...
    • If you are ever in a position to encourage, or support research into this area, (a simple letter to your environmental agency or university could go a long way), then please take the time to do so.
    With all of that said, I still have to point out that we don't know for sure that this matter actually presents a problem, but as I said earlier, when we are talking about the health of ourselves and our loved ones, it would be foolish to take unnecessary risks. And this brings us to the next aspect of this particular disadvantage.
  2. Availability.
    Yes...I know. I already listed this as an advantage to using machine-shredded paper, and it is. But considering what we just talked about, those of us who wish to use the resulting compost on our gardens now have to see a certain disadvantage in acquiring material of this nature that is also safe to use. Well, I assure you, there is still plenty of machine-shredded paper around that contains no photocopied material, but a little more effort will be required to locate a suitable source. Because this material makes up such a large portion of the waste-stream, however, I personally think the added effort is well worth the time. This is also where the idea of having a community-based paper-shredder comes in handy, allowing you to make your own machine-shredded from the plentiful supply of unshredded waste paper that is still available everywhere. And in the instance of in-school vermicomposters,and similar situations, the chances are good that there is already a paper-shredder available, which means that simple sorting of the material that is to be shredded will solve the whole problem.

    Since we have already dealt with the next three disadvantages in our discussion of newsprint, I have simply provided a link to the appropriate area of that section. If you wish to refresh yourself on the particulars, please return there by clicking on the link, and after you have read the comments, the return function on your browser shall bring you safely back here.

  3. It Drys Rapidly, Leaks Light, and Can Become Compacted.
At any rate, even with all the disadvantages that are encountered in using machine-shredded paper as a bedding material for worms, I consider it to be one of the best materials for this particular use. Like many vermiculturists, one of the main reasons I keep worms is to help in the reduction of waste materials that are destined for some already over-burgeoned landfill. If I have to exert a little more effort in obtaining a suitable source of this particular waste, I can take consolation in knowing that I am at least dealing with a material that truly makes up a large portion of the problem we face in this area.

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Now we come to my favorite worm bedding, the one that in my humble opinion (I heard those snickers), is the ideal material available for this purpose. When I started my first worm-bin, I decided that cardboard would be my bedding material of choice, and if I had either kept my operation at the typical in-home size, or if I had had access to the necessary mechanical equipment required for producing large quantities of this substance (in its most suitable form), I'm sure I would still be using cardboard and nothing else. Unfortunately, shredding cardboard by hand (with razor knives and scissors) is a long and difficult process for anything but very small amounts, and unless the material can be reduced directly to particles the size of dust, degradation of the bedding can take a lengthy amount of time. This matter of slow degradation is not always a bad thing, mind you, just for the type of situation I was into at the time. Rather than go off on a tangent once again, however, I'll try and include as many explanations as possible of the pertinent aspects of cardboard usage inside the listings of advantages and disadvantages which follow.

Among the advantages of cardboard can be found the following items:

  1. Availability and Consistency.
    Cardboard is very likely one of the most available sources of worm bedding in the populated areas of the world, second only to the rest of the paper products in general, and to newsprint specifically. If we consider that Canadians produce more waste material per capita than any other country in the world (including our American friends to the south), and that one of our largest sources of waste is in the area of packaging, then we should be able to begin imagining just how many cardboard boxes this country goes through every day. According to figures that were supplied to me by Environment Canada (and mentioned elsewhere in this article), of the waste cardboard available in my home province in 1994, only 8.5% was being recycled. That means over 90% of the available material ended up at the local landfills, and even if we assume that the recycling rate has doubled since then (which I personally doubt), over 80% is still being buried. All a vermiculturist has to do is intercept the material before it gets hauled away, and of all the available substances, cardboard is one of the easiest to do that with. The simple fact of the matter is that of everything that makes up our waste stream, cardboard is the material most often separated from the rest, before it is thrown out, and for people who raise worms, that is excellent news.

    Access to quantities of cardboard is made even easier by one very simple fact. For many people that have a lot of this material, it can be very expensive to dispose of. Consider how many grocery stores, small and large, occupy every neighborhood, in every city in North America. Once or twice a week (sometimes even more often), these stores receive their grocery orders. Approxmately 80% of what they receive will be packed in cardboard boxes, which will be emptied, usually flattened out, then placed in large garbage bins to await hauling to the dump. In case you weren't aware of it, most companies that supply those large dumpsters, charge for each time that the bin is emptied. The rates may vary from one location to the next, but I can assure you, it is often costly enough that many store owners will be quite happy to have you remove a load or two for them, whenever you are able. Like always, talk to the individual merchant before removing anything from their property, and once you receive permission to do so, treat that merchant in a polite and conscientious manner. That way, you will not only obtain a good supply of great bedding, but you might even make a new friend.

    One last point concerning this availability issue. Very often, the larger grocery (or department) stores in the various metropolitan areas will produce enough of this waste material that a recycling company will already be contracting to handle their waste for them. For that reason, --though it certainly can't hurt to check things out-- it may save you some time if you approach only the smaller corner-store type operations. Besides, if you are running anything short of a commercial operation, just one or two smaller locations will probably be sufficient to provide you with all the bedding material you require.

    With all that said, there is very little to be added on the consistency side of the matter. Basically, cardboard is cardboard, and except for a few related issues which we will deal with further on, the simple fact of the matter is, if you start your worms in cardboard, and continue to use cardboard as their bedding material, there is very little chance that your worm population should have anything to complain about.

  2. Environmental Friendliness.
    Are you trying to tell
    me that some beddings
    are friendlier than others?

    In a manner of speaking, yes.(Who the heck is that?) I realize that using any waste material for worm bedding, rather than sending it off to the landfill, is an environmentally-friendly act (which is why I haven't included it among the earlier lists of advantages), but using cardboard in this particular manner has at least one added tell!
    (Sarcastic little rat isn't he.) Alright, I will.

    You see, even though there are many substances that can be diverted from the landfill for use as worm bedding, very few of those materials take up as much space at the landfill (in relation to their total weight) as cardboard does. Cardboard boxes, for instance, are not always flattened out before being disposed of, and crumpled cartons tend to use up a lot of unnecessary space. If the boxes are flattened out prior to burial, they can still present another problem. Under tremendous pressure, and protected from the elements by a multiple layering effect, this cardboard can take an awful long time to decompose, thus causing the landfill to reach its capacity much faster than it normally would, if used only for rapidly-decaying materials. So you see, if we use 50 pounds of cardboard for worm bedding, as opposed to 50 pounds of green waste (for example), we save a lot more in the sense of available disposal space, and that (you curious little rat), is what I mean by environmentally-friendly.

  3. A Good Feed Source.
    In most cases, a good feed source does NOT equal a good bedding material. The reason for this is that most feeds are too high in protein to double as a bedding substance. The worms (who by their very nature eat constantly) will soon burn out in a high-protein bedding, and when I say burn out, I mean that almost literally. The constant intake of protein will raise the internal temperature of the worm, which results in a binful of wigglers that are no longer wiggling. They will also not be eating, mating, or moving, since they will all be dead. What they will be doing, is laying around in the bed, racing each other to see who can rot first. I'm sure there is a very nifty scientific explanation for this phenomena, but I can only attest to it as the result of having killed several batches of worms in this manner. When someone was good enough to explain the problem to me, and at the urging of Willy, and several thousand of his friends, I chose to accept the explanation.

    What this means of course, is that with many substances --such as newsprint or machine-shredded paper--, a feed source apart from the bedding material is required for happy, healthy worms. There are exceptions to this rule, however, and cardboard is one of the most notable among them. Not only can cardboard serve as an excellent bedding material, but if you are so inclined, you can have it pull double-duty, serving also as the only feed source in the bin. It has even been said by various worm experts that worms raised strictly in cardboard will be larger, healthier, and more prolific (sex-crazed ) than worms raised in any other material. There are a few explanations for these opinions, and also one or two qualifications which should be kept in mind.

    First of all, why should cardboard make a good feed? Because of the cellulose (a complex carbohydrate derived from plant fibre) it contains, as well as the glue (usually made from animal by-products) that is used to bind the various layers together. In combination, these substances provide the worm with just about everything it requires to grow up big and healthy. If there is anything lacking in this particular bedding/feed, it is the additional protein necessary for giving the worm a firm, resilient body, something desirable to anyone raising worms as fishing bait, even though the worm itself may consider it to be an optional trait. (This deficiency is easily rectified by a weekly supplement of commercial feed.)

    The main qualification that must be taken into account is the condition of the cardboard in relation to its availability as feed. When pulverized, this material is pretty much ready for instant ingestion by the worms, and conversion of the bedding into castings can be expected to occur in as little as 6-8 weeks. This is, of course, assuming the presence of an average worm population, which for the sake of argument can be approximated at 2 pounds of worms per cubic foot of bedding. If, on the other hand, the cardboard is not pulverized, but simply shredded or crumpled, it will take a considerably longer time before decomposition progresses to the point where the worms can use the bedding material as feed. In that situation, a secondary food source will be required until such time as the cardboard reaches a suitable state.

  4. Texture.
    I mentioned elsewhere the fact that peat moss, bog soil, or shredded paper could all be used to fluff up other bedding materials that were too dense, or heavy. Not only is the same thing true of cardboard, but of all the materials used in worm bins, none produce (in my opinion) a nicer final product than this one. When pulverized prior to use, cardboard is already light and fluffy, and even if used in a rougher state (shredded or crumpled), it will eventually result in an extremely friable compost. In fact, cardboard may be the only paper-based bedding material that doesn't present the vermiculturist with compaction problems.
  5. Usually Has No Odor.
    Another of those wonderful materials that has no inherent odor unless it is left lying around in very large quantities, or in a dampened condition. (Once installed in a worm bin, even moist cardboard is usually odor-free, and if it isn't, the bin conditions should be checked.)
Among the disadvantages of cardboard are the several smaller problems which relate to this one main point:
  1. Cost or Effort.
    Considering everything I have already said about the availability of waste cardboard, you may be wondering why this matter of cost should be the disadvantage I mention, and you might even be wondering exactly what cost I am referring to. Well give me a moment and I'll explain.

    First, it must be understood, cost is not always determined by an actual expenditure of cash. Time is also a valuable commodity, as is work, and unless you happen to be in a very fortunate situation, the conversion of raw cardboard boxes into suitable worm bedding can involve a considerable outlay of both. You see, the waste material is definitely available, but simply crushing the boxes and wetting them down is a very crude technique that is seldom satisfactory in the long run. This means you must either pulverize the cardboard, or at the very least, reduce it in size quite drastically.

    There are two, possibly three main problems encountered when the boxes are merely crushed and moistened as a means of preparation.

    • First of all, unless you are using a relatively large bin-system, you will have to find very small cardboard boxes to crush, or you simply won't have enough available space in the container. (If later on, you should try to use the same method to add fresh bedding to the system, you may also find yourself squishing a fair portion of the existing worm population.)
    • Next comes the problem of harvesting those little wigglers from within such a system. You see, until the cardboard becomes decayed enough for the worms to ingest, they will feast themselves on the glue that is available between the layers of paper. They will accomplish this by squirming inside those various layers via the corrugations, and that is where you will have to find the little critters when you need them. Aside from having to peel the paper layers apart from one another, when you do locate the worms, they will be covered in the very slippery glue substance, making them almost impossible to pick up. (If you have no intention of harvesting the worms until all the bedding is converted, this particular point should not prove to be a problem.)
    • Finally, if you decide to supplement the cardboard with an additional feed source (kitchen waste, compost, etc.), you will rapidly discover the difficulties involved in "burying" anything in crumpled cardboard.
    What this means, of course, is that for most practical uses, you will find that cardboard bedding works best when reduced to pieces of approximately 1 square inch or smaller, with pulverization working best of all. If you have read my earlier articles, you may recall that I acquired the square pieces of cardboard bedding for my initial worm beds by cutting boxes into long strips with a razor knife, then cutting the strips down with heavy-duty scissors. (I eventually cut 145 pounds of one-inch cardboard squares over a period of roughly 45 days, and sometimes late at night, when the moon is full, I can still feel the resulting cuts and blisters which I acquired along with the bedding material. ) So if you figure the hours involved in this process, and assume even a minimum wage for my efforts, you can see the cost I am referring to.

    Now, as I've already said, pulverization works the best, but unless you happen to own a hammermill, or at least have access to one, you are not likely to encounter a great amount of cardboard in the form of dust (other than the unsafe material prepared as insulation.) The idea of purchasing a hammermill specifically for "bedding preparation" is more than a little silly considering the cost, and even renting the use of this type of equipment from time to time can get expensive. (If you should obtain the use of such a piece of equipment, remember to wear a face mask to prevent the accidental inhalation of the airborne particles.)

    So in the end, though I consider waste cardboard to be the finest bedding substance available for indoor worm composters, the problems involved in obtaining it in a suitable form, or the effort required to convert the raw material to the necessary condition by hand, makes this substance suitable only for the smallest of operations. That is, unless you happen to be one of the fortunate few who just happen to find yourself in a very rare situation. In that case, congratulations, you lead a truly blessed life.

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    Original Text

    Copyright 1996, D. Brian Paley
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