Photograph by Porter Loves.
For Laura Totin Codori, worms are the heroes of her vermicomposting business, Worm Return. Worm Return enables individuals and businesses to put their food scraps to good use with their popular composting services and ‘worm workshops.’ Since 2018, Worm Return and its customers (a.k.a. ‘diversion partners’) have diverted nearly 113,000 pounds of organic waste from landfills—approximately the carbon dioxide equivalent of 5,300 pounds of methane. Worm Return also participates in local farmers’ markets in Pittsburgh and sells its composting products online.
As a life-long environmentalist, Laura has always been conscientious about keeping litter out of roadsides and parks. But when she discovered that organic materials decompose in landfills and emit methane, a greenhouse gas 84x more potent than carbon dioxide, her passion for keeping organic waste out of landfills blossomed. Through vermicomposting, Worm Return transforms food scraps into a homogenous material packed with microbes. Worms eat this rich material and produce worm castings, thereby creating a soil that helps plants absorb nutrients. This garden gold is essential for revitalizing soil and supporting healthy plant growth.
Throughout the Pittsburgh region, Worm Return empowers individuals to be more hands-on with their composting. For $75, Laura conducts consultations and ‘worm workshops.’ She visits customers’ compost sites and helps them create a successful composting system according to their unique space. Worm Return also supplies worms, bin materials, and unlimited access to Laura’s expertise. And, as long as individuals are on their composting journey, Laura continues to share her knowledge and provide support.
Worm Return has also consulted with passionate elementary school students with green thumbs. After implementing aquaponic and hydroponic systems in their garden, the students were eager to start vermicomposting. With a grant, Worm Return provided urban worm bags and a workshop to teach the students how to compost.
Worm Return is one of a few businesses in Pittsburgh that enables restaurateurs and residents to easily contribute to composting efforts. In their popular pickup service (at a cost of $30 per month), customers simply leave their bucket of food scraps on their porches. Laura supplies individuals with a fresh bucket during each pickup and informs them of how much organic waste they’ve diverted from landfills. With less effort than it takes to haul a garbage bin to the curb, Worm Return’s diversion partners are making great environmental impacts. In November 2020, Worm Return processed the most food scraps they ever have in a single month: a whopping 6,800 pounds.
Laura established Worm Return in her own backyard. Her enthusiastic neighbors started giving their food scraps to Laura, and soon, they established a symbiotic system. With the finished compost, her neighbors continued growing their own gardens and supplying organic waste. Worm Return was composting more than one thousand pounds of organic scraps every month. With an abundance of nourishing compost, Worm Return partnered with a local business owner to revitalize three vacant lots whose soil was deemed so unsafe that no one could set foot on them. Worm Return’s compost replenished the soil, transforming the lots from hazard zones to beautiful green spaces that cultivated healthy gardens.
Worm Return remains deeply rooted in Laura’s own community of Allentown, PA. In 2021, Worm Return will have a new lot to call its own located just a few doors down from Laura’s backyard. The lot will invite diversion partners and community members to bring their food scraps and witness the composting process in action.
“I’m sure any business owner knows that when you work at home, there’s no work-life separation sometimes. This is a really big step for the business,” says Laura.
Like the majority of small business owners, the 2020 Covid-19 public health crisis required Laura to pivot her business. When Worm Return’s restaurant partners slowed down, Laura increased her focus to serving residents who wanted to compost from their homes. Laura worried about how she could reach more individuals, but then the City of Pittsburgh invited Worm Return to participate in local farmers markets during the summer (which required masks and social-distancing). Laura sold Worm Return compost and encouraged community members to drop off their food scraps at her booth. Afterwards, many individuals signed up for Worm Return’s pickup service. Folks also expressed their difficulty in finding Worm Return online. Based on their feedback, Laura undertook the task of improving her SEO. In just three months, Worm Return’s customer base increased by 200% and now includes just as many residential partners as commercial.
Laura joined her eforever peer group in Hazelwood (Pittsburgh, PA) in the spring of 2020. Every month, she meets with fellow business owners who understand her business issues and share their knowledge about how to solve them.
“My group spent most of one meeting helping me solve my problems. I felt so selfish, but my peers were so excited to help. It was inspiring to them. My facilitator said, ‘Laura, you think your problems are unique to you. But everyone else is figuring out how to solve their own issues when they help you solve yours.’”
Laura and her business also benefit from her facilitator’s expertise in small business.
“The questions that Terry presents to the group for discussion and the little tidbits of entrepreneurial advice stick with me. Once, he said that business owners have a bad habit of charging what they can afford instead of what they’re worth. That really hit me because I am a first-time business owner. It made me evaluate what I’m bringing to the table and what my product, service, and knowledge are worth.”
Folks who want to start diverting their food scraps from landfills can contact Worm Return at firstname.lastname@example.org or text 412-773-0306. Individuals can also contact Laura if they would like to bring their food scraps to Worm Return directly. Laura is still conducting consultations and workshops, which can be socially-distanced or virtual.