Building a Green Future

Santa Clara University is learning from the worms and upping their game for a more sustainable future.

After years of drought, California’s winter rains have heralded the beginnings of spring and hope for verdant greens and vivid blooms. The pattering of rain also summoned rosy earthworms from their burrows. Often no bigger than a finger, these humble wrigglers are to thank for spring’s blooms and Earth’s rebirth by breaking down food waste and dead plants to leave rich soil behind. 

Worms do a great deal of work diverting human waste from landfills. From the stub end of a hamburger and carrot peelings to junk mail and napkins, as long as its organic worms can break them down. For Tom Boehme owner of Old Toms Wormery, worms are what make the environment run and his business is just one small step into getting others to rethink their waste.

“Organic waste does not need to be garbage,” Boehme says. “Organic waste is a resource, and we all have our hands on a little bit of it. We can all do our little part by putting that little bit back into productive use here on the surface of the Earth instead of buried along with the old batteries, car bumpers, and plastic crap that we humans generate.”

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Worms help aerate soil and while they lack arms, legs, and eyes they’re excellent diggers. Photo provided by Amit Patel.

When organic matter, like food waste, is sent to the landfill, it can’t interact with oxygen as it decays. This means that the carbon dioxide trapped within such material is turned into methane and other greenhouse gasses instead of finding a new purpose. While these gasses could possibly be repurposed with the right methods, composting makes these organic materials more easily reused by plants.

One of the ways worm composting, or vermicompost, differs from regular compost is the end product and means of composting. Regular composting relies upon microorganisms to break down organic material and requires turnover of the material to aerate it. With vermicompost, worms eat these microbes and naturally decompose the material into nutrient-rich fertilizer. This process is quicker than regular composting but requires a cool temperature to keep the worms healthy.

Boehme first became enamored by worms when he unearthed a handful of them in his garden. In Boehme’s eyes, they’re the alpha predator in composting bins, and it’s the humans’ job to keep them safe from predators and well-fed.

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Worms are cold-blooded creatures. Subsequently managing the temperatures in a worm farm or compost bin is paramount. Photo provided by Ivan Radic.

“If it grew, the worms could eat it,” Boehme says. “Way back, worms ate dinosaurs, worms ate [the] T-Rex. They were around long before T-Rex, and now the T-Rex is long gone [and] they’re still here.”

Vermicompost and composting, though, is just one small link in a chain toward combating food waste for Boehme. What comes first above all else for Boehme are people and animals. 

“When you bring food to your house, eat the food,” Boehme says. “Don’t throw a whole bunch of it away. Don’t throw any of it away [instead] share it with humans, give it to animals and then compost it, don’t throw it in the trash.”

Through the Center for Sustainability, Santa Clara University students can get hands-on with garbage—quarterly events allow them to see first-hand what goes to the dump. They can also do their own composting with their own bins supplied by the Center for Sustainability and the Housing Office.

On the ground level, students have begun to take their own action to combat waste. Samantha Lei ’26, Jessica Luna ’24, and Emily Pachoud ’23 formed a group this winter to gauge student interest in jumpstarting a project to install zero-waste refill stations on campus. These refill stations would minimize plastic waste by providing students with laundry detergent sheets, detergent, and other hygiene products. 

Aside from being more sustainable and making sustainability more accessible, the student working group believes that it can also help with cutting down on student costs. One of the reasons why the students picked laundry detergent was because it was an easy and accessible change that most students could make.

“When it comes to eco-conscious alternatives [and] zero waste alternatives, they can be extremely expensive,” Pachoud said. “A lot of people care about the waste they’re producing, but they might not have the means to be able to afford these alternatives.

Beyond financial constraints, one of the biggest issues Pachoud, Lei, and Luna have seen is a knowledge gap. While the Center for Sustainability has promoted individual efforts, waste sorting, and composting, they want to make sure that knowledge trickles down clearly to the rest of campus. Specifically, they want to make sure students know how to use the compost bins correctly.

“I hope this project inspires more people to start their own student groups to bring in more zero-waste products,” Lei said. “Not just through zero-waste products, but by becoming more involved with the school’s sustainability in ways that we’re not just leaving it to the admin to figure it out for us, but we’re taking initiative. I think that’s one of the most important parts of this project.”

Photos provided by Jim Cochran, of Adam Hays Photography

Starting in the fall quarter, the Center of Sustainability and the Division of Mission and Ministry began an in-depth planning process – Sustainable SCU: Leading Through Laudato Si’ – to create a vision for Santa Clara’s sustainability and justice efforts for the next seven years . Joined by 130 other universities from across the globe, the program is inspired by Pope Francis’ 2015 landmark environmental encyclical which implores each of us to respond to our earth’s climate crisis  

To address this call to action, Santa Clara has created a year-long inclusive process so all members of the community – faculty, staff, current students, administrators, and alumni – can be involved in the design and future implementation of this seven-year action plan. This shared ownership was especially important to the director of the Center for Sustainability Lindsey Kalkbrenner and Vice President for Mission and Ministry Alison Benders.  

“We are excited to build a collaborative vision that will serve as a pillar for SCU’s next strategic plan,” Kalkbrenner says. “We will need many levels of leadership to achieve our goals – whether they’re strategic institutional goals or individual and collective actions. Through our collective input, this process will help us articulate how the university community can live out our care ethic for our common home.”

The Division of Mission and Ministry has been funding Laudato Si’ this year alongside other climate and environmental justice initiatives on campus and beyond. According to Benders, environmental sustainability and justice are at the forefront of the world’s issues. 

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Laudato Si’ has brought Santa Clara University closer together to make Santa Clara more sustainable. From the working groups and faculty to students, alums, and local community members all are welcome. Photo provided by Jim Cochran, of Adam Hays Photography.

“In caring for our common home now for the benefit of future generations, the university’s Catholic and Jesuit commitments take shape as tangible expressions of our faith and hope,” Benders says. “ Through well-informed, well-developed and collaborative actions, we commit ourselves as a Jesuit university to rebalance our relationships with the earth and with one another for a ‘more humane, just, and sustainable world.’”

All opinions and ideas are important for this initiative and it’s one of the reasons why the program has held roadshows to get more feedback. If presented with questions about recycling, fossil fuels, or energy conservation Kalkbrenner wants to be able to show stakeholders what they can do and how the school can support them.

“What we’re trying to do is remind people that this is our opportunity to address global issues for our generation and generations into the future by seeing sustainability and justice not as an add-on, but deeply embedded into  how we live and operate as an institution,” Kalkbrenner says. “This plan offers our strategies for ways to shift our way of being to one that is more inclusive, caring, and forward-thinking about solutions to improve our climate.”

In order to  advance sustainability across university functional areas,, the project has five working groups focused on Academics, Campus Engagement, Community Engagement, Operations: Energy and Operations: Resources. During this academic year, each of these groups has been focused on drafting major goals and strategies based on collected data and campuswide ideation sessions. Establishing and clearly defining these goals will be key as the next six years will focus on achieving them.

Sustainability at Santa Clara has come a long way since Kalkbrenner first started in 2006. Waste diversion rates have improved greatly, and composting has been implemented, but Kalkbrenner sees that there’s still more to be done. In spring, all of the working groups will assemble for a summit and discuss all they’ve learned. They hope to gain feedback from one another and create more tangible solutions that confront the problems they and Kalkbrenner have noted in the leading up months.

“There’s so much enthusiasm and momentum that has been reignited during this planning process,” Kalkbrenner says. “I wish I could capture these feelings in a jar and release them whenever we need some hope. I think this summit has been a really great time and place to do that and feel that energy and enthusiasm.”

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