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Red wigglers in a Worm Studio. Photo by Petr Maur.

The future of urban composting is a chic box of worms

By Ryan Pepper on April 1, 2021


Red wigglers in a Worm Studio. Photo by Petr Maur.

Akil Mesiwala is vermicomposting with a mission.

The singular force behind the vermicomposting social enterprise The Box of Life, Mesiwala is making urban composting easy, accessible, and good-looking. Customers get a beautiful wooden Worm Studio that can fit in a studio apartment, and the planet gets a sleek way to cut down on food waste and rehabilitate soil.

“Vermicomposting is a type of oxidated composting that uses red wigglers to quickly convert your food waste into worm poop, which is an amazing soil amendment,” says Mesiwala. “It’s similar to what happens on a forest floor.”

The aim of The Box of Life is to mimic that natural process inside homes and apartments in a push to cut down on food waste. The worm bins are small—about the same footprint as a dining chair—but the worms can eat a lot of waste in a few months.

And most importantly, Mesiwala promises it doesn’t smell at all.

“When you think about composting, you think about having a backyard space,” Mesiwala says. “The reason I started vermicomposting was because I lived in an apartment, I did not have backyard space, I was in Boston so year-round composting outside was not really feasible. I did some research into if it’s even possible to compost inside an apartment and I came across vermicomposting.”

Akil Mesiwala, the man behind Ottawa-based social enterprise Box of Life. Photo by Petr Maur.

The earthworms provide oxygen for the right kinds of microbes to thrive, and the worms act as the final composters. Their waste, called castings, is a rich fertilizer. It’s a simple solution to a complex problem.

Mesiwala says it’s an easy and fun process, and with his Box of Life business, a Worm Studio is a chic addition to any home.

Mesiwala started vermicomposting in Boston, and he calls the process “absorbing.” When he moved to Ottawa, he wanted to spread the joy and benefits of worm composting. He hopes to use The Box of Life to increase awareness of vermicomposting, which he called “not mainstream.”

“We need to come up with solutions that are practical and scalable, and I thought the humble earthworm could solve so many of our problems.”

“The Box of Life has one big mission, which is to end food waste from going to landfill, and to do that we are focusing on individual empowerment,” says Mesiwala. “Imagine a scenario where every household, every office, every restaurant, had its own on-site waste management system with worms that could consume all the scraps on-site, build healthy soil; we’re no longer sending our scraps to landfill or trucking it out to a compost facility, and we’re empowering people to regenerate soil.”

Soil rehabilitation is, in fact, the major unstated goal of The Box of Life. While Mesiwala started the company to cut down on food waste, he’s since realized that his worm composting company can have serious benefits for topsoil.

A three-box Worm Studio. Photo by Petr Maur.

In a sobering 2014 report, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declared that we only have 60 years of topsoil left if soil degradation continues. Mesiwala stated that topsoil can take hundreds of years to accumulate, but vermicomposting can help the process without using pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or genetically modified crops.

“When you’re in consulting you’re coming up with solutions but you’re not really following through,” says Mesiwala. “I was disillusioned by that because climate change is happening, environmental destruction is happening. We need to come up with solutions that are practical and scalable, and I thought the humble earthworm could solve so many of our problems.”

Mesiwala realized that to get people on board, he had to make the process easy and attractive—thus the The Box of Life. Customers can stack three or four worm bins. The red wiggler worms move up the boxes, and once the worms have travelled up, you can take the bottom box—now full of fertile worm castings—and just rotate the boxes from there.

“The interesting thing is that most of our customers are first-time vermicomposters.”

Mesiwala says the company is still in its early phase, having started a few months before COVID-19. He said that over the last year and a half, he’s had over 250 customers. Now, local businesses are getting worm bins too, with Arlington Five and Moo Shu both having bins. When I swung by Arlington Five, an employee said the worms were “great little co-workers.”

“I thought this product would be an upgrade for people who had plastic worm bins that became a bit clunky to use. The interesting thing is that most of our customers are first-time vermicomposters,” Mesiwala says.

The pandemic has boosted Box of Life now that most people are spending more time at home. Mesiwala says it’s a great project for young families, and vermicomposting companies across the continent have seen an uptick in sales, both because of house-bound people taking up new hobbies and increased climate awareness. Vermicomposting, Mesiwala maintains, is a grassroots low-tech climate change solution.

“We keep looking for bioreactors or fancy shiny gadgets to help with our waste, whereas a simple box with worms in it can do the same thing,” says Mesiwala.

Box of Life also has an educational component, and Mesiwala started bringing worm bins into classrooms before COVID-19. He also runs online workshops for new vermicomposters.

“If you really want to drive long-term generational change, you need to get people involved at a young age. Children love earthworms. If you teach them how to take care of earthworms, get them to love the process at a younger age, you can get the children to pressure their parents into doing this,” Mesiwala says.

For a company working in the dirt, the sky’s the limit for The Box of Life. This summer, he’s coming to farmer’s markets in ByWard and Parkdale to raise awareness and sell worm bins. But Mesiwala says in his wildest dreams, he believes that we can redirect 100% of food waste from landfills. Ideally, he wants worm bins in every home, and dreams of designing bigger composting systems for commercial food businesses like grocery stores and restaurants.

The end goal according to Mesiwala: “All your food waste is composted within a few metres of where you live, be it whether you’re a resident, a restaurant, or a grocery store. We can compost on-site, we can build healthy soil, and we can use that soil to grow healthy food within our communities.”

You can follow The Box of Life on Facebook, and check out their website for more information and to buy your own Worm Studio.