SEARCH 2000 Games

Monday, September 18, 2000
The Big Squirm

 SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Keep the temperature comfortable; if they start to sweat, they won't eat as much. Don't stress them out, either, or the chowing-down will ebb. And if they mingle and look lively, you'll know they're having a good time.

 Good advice for any restaurateur. But these particular diners, who cluster by the thousands behind eating areas at the Olympics, won't be leaving a tip -- only a pile of dirt.

 These are, after all, worms -- worms that are eating their way through Olympic garbage morsel by delicious, rotting morsel. And here's the kicker: They're supposed to be there.

 In refrigerator-sized units behind four key Olympic sites -- the Sydney organizing committee headquarters, the Main Press Center, the International Broadcast Center and the Olympic Park Novotel -- three varieties of earthworms work around the clock, chewing through more than a ton of scraps to help realize Sydney's promise of an environmentally conscious games.

 Call 'em Ring Worms: the Olympic equivalent of hundreds of thousands of tiny vacuum cleaners, devouring anything organic in their path. They work all but silently, squishing a bit if you put 'em near your ear (most people don't).

 "People don't realize it's there, but it's silently chewing away," is the ominous assessment from Peter Ottesen, the organizing committee's environment program manager.

 Garbage in, garbage out, it's said. But here, what comes out is better than what goes in. The byproduct, "vermicast," is as rich as anything around the Olympic Village -- except maybe certain members of the International Olympic Committee. Unlike them, though, it'll be used to fertilize soil on Australian farms.

 Overseeing the project is Steve Scott, general manager of Enviro-Waste Solutions and keeper of the collections of genus Lumbricus. One needs a commitment to the environment and a dry sense of humor for such a job, and Scott possesses both. He's been doing this for seven years.

 Consider his thoughts on maintaining adequate supplies when the only way to increase your wormload is to feed 'til they breed: "You've got to drive around Sydney looking for waste until you have enough worms."

 These worms can double their mass every three months, and can eat more than half their own weight in a single day -- even more than Mr. Creosote, the preposterously obese guy who explodes after one thin mint too many in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life."

 The SOCOG, the Olympic organizing committee, is putting its faith in the creatures. At its 2,000-person headquarters, they've chewed on shredded documents since 1998, worming more than 90 percent of the site's secure papers into oblivion.

 Ask Scott for a tour and he'll lead you past the media center McDonald's, into a back hallway and outside to a loading area filled with metal crates. One, marked "CAUTION," contains the snacking wormage.

 He pulls back a cover, yanks open a huge metal drawer and pulls back a grassy layer, revealing something resembling the wriggly Klingon dish from "Star Trek."

 Visible in the mix are carrots, lettuce, bits of celery and shredded paper for variety. There's no dressing; sauces, gravies and meats slow 'em down.

 These aren't finicky eaters, though; no one worries they're going to develop a taste for arugula or capers.

 Scott reaches in for a gloved handful of squirmy goodness, and a rich, meaty smell wafts up. All liquid drips to the bottom and is put back in, like basting some unholy earthen roast.

 A chef in full dress whites -- from the "Fine Dining Area" whence the garbage comes -- happens by. "Never mind the Olympics," he cracks. "The worms are the biggest show."

 That's not coincidental. Olympics environmental officials admit the worms are the sexiest (yes, that word was used) way to promote the "Green Olympics" that Sydney promised when it vied to become the city for the 2000 Summer Games.

 Other initiatives, while less sexy, are equally determined. Everything from solar-powered lodging to endangered-species protection to responsible irrigation is documented in a 60-page government guide.

 Organizers aim to recycle 80 percent of the expected 5,500 tons of Olympic-generated waste, according to SOCOG's Patrick Fletcher. Only a small amount will be devoured by the worms, which are a pilot project.

 But they consume and process about 500 pounds of waste per week -- hardly small potatoes (which they'll also eat). So far, it's kept nearly three tons of waste out of landfills.

 Scott sees this becoming the major alternative to traditional composting. Future sporting events, he envisions, would employ battalions of garbage-chewing worms. He can see it now: Turin, Athens, Salt Lake City, all replete with delicious garbage ready for the munching.

 And he's not worried his boys will get full.

 "So far," he says, "they're always hungry."

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