Worm Power: Sustainability and Income Generation in Slums Through Worm Composting

Waste-pickers have developed a program that converts organic waste into fertilizer through the power of worms. “Worm Power” distributes worm composting kits to households, while engaging in large-scale worm composting at its own facility. The initiative turns marginalized people into environmental champions while generating income from waste.

Fast facts:

  • 3,500 people directly benefited
  • More than 25 tons of waste processed monthly at centralized facility
  • More than 1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions prevented over four-years of operation


The problem

The city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico produces about 1,000 tons of garbage per day, 65 per cent of it organic. This is then dumped into open-air landfills where it causes pollution including greenhouse gases. One-third of the people in Oaxaca do not have access to regular rubbish collection, and instead dump or burn it in public places, causing health problems and environmental degradation. Waste-pickers, or “pepedores,” carry out the informal work of sorting through and selecting out items for recycling. This however, is hazardous, unhygienic work that also subjects these people to exploitation.


The solution

Pepedores in 12 slum communities around the largest landfill site in Oaxaca have organized Worm Power, a program that converts biodegradable waste into high-quality fertilizer, thanks to the work of the red Californian earth worm. Worm Power provides families with worm composting kits to transform their organic waste into fertilizer. This decentralizes waste management while empowering average citizens. With a time investment of only 15 minutes, families are able to process 2 kilograms of organic waste per day.

At the same time, the Worm Power Community Center receives waste from marginalized neighborhoods and feeds it to worms that produce fertilizer in large quantities. The Worm Power Center also purchases worm-processed soil from households, providing them with a source of income. Worm Power, which functions as a cooperative, sells this rich soil to peasants in the region to use on their crops. The cooperative reinvests proceeds locally in housing, food security and sanitation programs.

Helping the planet

Worm Power has reduced indiscriminate discarding of organic waste, decreasing uncontrolled land, air, and water pollution. The efforts reduce greenhouse gases since worms quickly transform waste, preventing emissions from decomposition such as methane. The activity also decreases use of nonrenewable energy for waste collection, transport, and disposal. Worm fertilizer restores degraded soils by improving their capacity to hold moisture.


Helping people

Families engaging in worm composting have reported a significant decrease in pests, smells, and source of infectious illness. They’re also spending less money on trash collection. Households in the program have been inspired to set up family gardens using worm fertilizer and cultivate vegetables for their own consumption, improving food security and reducing malnutrition. People have gained a tangible economic opportunity, as well as skills and knowledge.

Pepedadores, meanwhile, have gained dignity and respect, being empowered in their role as environmental role-models. Worm Power has also reduced potential exploitation by middlemen who seek to lowball waste-pickers on prices for recyclables. It has also decreased child labor as poor families’ incomes have increased.


Spillover effect

The activity has already increased to 10 times its original scale. Red worms are present in most parts of the world; vermiculture is very simple and can be learned in a matter of days. To produce the compost, worms require only moist organic waste, a little water, and any container. The low investment needed for utilizing worms gives it great growth potential. Also, since worms reproduce quickly, the practice can spread, as one user passes on extra worms to family or friends.

Increasing demand for organic fertilizer, in part due to the rising price of chemical fertilizers, means more demand that can also help this project grow. Every person is capable of managing his or her own waste by having a worm composting kit at home. Thus, the program highly replicable.


Images owned by the activity partners, all rights reserved.