Squirmy sustainability: One man’s mission to fix a common problem

Bob Deering at his home with his dog Gamby and compost bins. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Bob Deering at his home with his dog and compost bins. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

There’s nothing like taking a walk on Alaska’s pristine wilderness. Unless you step in something — unexpected along the way.

For parkgoers, what dogs leave behind on the trail can be a sensitive topic. But one Juneau man has an unconventional solution he thinks could ease tensions and reduce waste, all at once.

Bob Deering has the Midas touch when it comes to compost. He’s all about turning unpleasant trash into gardening gold.

“My friends are really receptive to the idea. Some of them think I’m a wackjob,” he said with a laugh.

In Deering’s backyard are two wooden bins — full of cardboard, dirt and hundreds of small pink and purple worms. Deering is what you could call a worm composting aficionado. These tiny creatures are known as red wigglers and they’re used to break down organic matter, like food scraps.

But Deering thinks they might also be a solution for an age-old municipal problem.

“Dog poop on trails, it’s such a contentious subject,” Deering said. “We walk our dog on a trail around here and it really bothers us to see, to be stepping around big piles of dog poop on the trails.”

Also contentious: the plastic blue bags responsible dog-owners use to scoop that poop, which can end up in the landfill.

So Deering had a wild idea. He’s been composting with worms for years. If the red wigglers can break down coffee grinds and vegetable scraps, why not more pungent waste?

It was just kind of an experiment. I just threw the dog poop in there and it went away and the lightbulb came on for me,” Deering said.

He said what came out of the worms was nutritious fertilizer for his trees and shrubs.

And he thought, what if something like this existed at trailheads? Dog owners could easily pick up the poop with scoops or biodegradable bags. And the trailhead sites could also become a place to drop off cardboard. Apparently, worms love snacking on cardboard.

“Now we’re taking care of two different waste products. That’s kind of the holy grail when you’re trying to look for sustainability,” he said.

Bob Deering has orders his red wigglers through the mail. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Bob Deering orders his red wigglers through the mail. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Michele Elfers, a program manager at the City and Borough of Juneau’s solid waste department, said she’s familiar with different ways to compost.

However, “I haven’t heard about this specific technology,” she said.

Elfers said conserving space in the landfill is a huge priority. It has a 20 year life expectancy and the city isn’t sure what it will do when that space fills up. For now, it’s focusing on what it can do to keep garbage out of it. That includes adding more recycling drops offs and considering alternative methods, like composting.

And although Elfers hasn’t heard of Bob Deering’s big idea, she said the city has worked with individuals to think outside the box. She points to the influx of electric vehicle charging stations in Juneau.

“So it happens a lot, actually,” Elfers said.

She said there will be public meetings this winter to brainstorm more.

Ann Dombkowski calls her bin the "worm yacht." (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Ann Dombkowski calls her bin the “worm yacht.” (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

In the meantime, Deering is leading his own charge. He’s become the community’s pied piper of composting with worms. And he’s convinced about 40 of his friends to try it.

Ann Dombkowski is one of Deering’s composting converts. She doesn’t own a dog and admits, initially, the concept of composting with worms seemed “creepy.” But after trying it, she warmed to the idea.

Deering gifted her a worm bin on a very special day.

“It’s a wedding present. So these are our babies. We’re too old to have children together so we have a zillion worms,” Dombkowski said.

If Bob Deering has his way, Juneau may have zillions more worms — and happier hikers.

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