Plastic Worm Bin Follow-Along

I’ve decided to go “back to my roots” in a sense by setting up my very own plastic enclosed worm bin. In recent years I’ve moved away from this approach in favor of larger, open vermicomposting systems along with various other “fancy” home systems (eg. Worm Inn, Worm Factory etc). Regardless, I still feel it’s a great (easy/inexpensive) option for those wanting to give vermicomposting a try – and a very popular choice among those new to the field. As such, I want to continue educating people on how to set up and use these types of systems.

What better way to help people than to set up my own plastic bin and share the experience here on the site? While I still feel my advice about these bins is on target, I think it will be really helpful for people to see everything laid out step by step, as it happens. One of my shortcomings as a vermicomposting educator is that I’ve reached the point of doing a lot of things in more of an instinctual, “gut feel” manner, so some of my advice can probably seem a little vague or even wishy washy at times.

I still stick to guns about the fact that every vermicomposting system is different (and the importance of acknowledging this), but still, I’m sure it would be nice to at least see the exact steps I am taking with my own bin, along with all the other relevant information (tips, warnings etc) I include with my updates.

OK – let’s start here with the basic stats on the bin and materials I am using…

It’s a Rubbermaid Roughneck Tote measuring ~20″(length) x ~14.5(width) x ~8.75″(depth) on the inside. I seem to recall the volume being somewhere in the vicinity of 58 liters (~15.3 gal). This is what I consider to be my “favorite” Rubbermaid bin size for Red Worm Bins – I use a deeper model for European Nightcrawlers.

For bedding materials, as per usual I am going with shredded cardboard – the equivalent of 2 pizza boxes and 27 drink trays, in case you’re curious. I did actually add even more shredded cardboard, but we’ll get to that later on. I love both corrugated cardboard and drink tray (“egg carton”) cardboard since they are bulky but still absorb and hold moisture well. Corrugated cardboard is a pain to tear up, but soaking it really helps. Pizza box corrugated cardboard is actually quite thin so I didn’t bother with the soaking.

I always try to steer clear of cardboards with glossy surfaces, colored inks etc, so all my cereal/cracker etc boxes go into the recycling bin, NOT my worm bins (once in awhile I will use some colored corrugated cardboard though). Same goes for glossy paper – I never use magazines/flyers as a bedding material. There is obviously some gray area here – it’s pretty tough to find newsprint that is strictly black and white these days, so my advice is not to worry TOO much about it if newsprint is your material of choice.

Ok, moving on here…

The first thing I did with the bin was cut my air holes. In the past, I likely would have just used a drill, but I’ve come to appreciate the value of larger holes cut using a jackknife or box cutter. For one thing you are not left with jagged bits of plastic on the inside of the bin where the holes come through, and of course, these larger holes also allow for greater air flow.

I cut 6 of these holes in my lid and 6 (3+3) along the upper sides of the bin – that’s it! I definitely prefer the K.I.S.S. approach these days, so I’m no longer a big fan of drainage holes, double stacked bins etc. But I don’t say that so as to discourage others from taking that approach! Whatever floats your boat.

The first thing I did was shred up my cardboard, starting with the pizza boxes. I included a shot below with a measuring tape to give people some idea of my recommended shredding size (obviously not set-in-stone, but might be in the range of 2″-4″ on average). You will also see how full the bin was once I had shredded up the last of the drink trays. One thing I’ve noticed with a LOT of (newbie) worm bins is that people have a tendency to skimp on bedding materials. There’s definitely no need for this -bedding is your friend!

The waste materials added to this bin were frozen-then-thawed kitchen scraps – about 6 pounds worth. There is no particular rationale behind using this amount (just happened to be the quantity dumped out of the bags I selected), but it IS important to point out that this bin is being aged for awhile before worms are added. So, the amount added initially is far less of a concern. As you’ll see in future updates, I’ll almost certainly be doing some course-correction during the aging period – so my aim here is really just to get a fair amount of food waste mixed with a lot of bedding and to let the microbial community get a solid foothold.

Here is a list of some of the materials I observed in my mix: blueberries, lemon halves, banana peels, 3/4 of a turnip, paper towel, rice, shredded carrots, bread, pepper cores, apple core, celery, pasta, tomato stem, and potato peels. Definitely some starchy stuff in there, but it’s important to note that I rarely add large quantities of these types of wastes to my scrap-holding bags.

The mix was definitely a lot bulkier than I wanted, so I decided to cut it up quite a bit (you can see the before and after below). This will help the microbes get established more quickly and help to prevent the formation of serious anaerobic zones.

In some of my early YouTube worm bin videos I recommend adding a pinch of soil to a worm bin when setting it up. Apart from the fact that this really isn’t necessary, I’ve found that some people just seem to take that advice a run with it – adding bagged soil as a bedding material, for example! lol

So let’s steer clear of “soil” altogether and focus on “living material” instead. This is a term I’ve been tossing around a lot on the blog as of late – and something I should probably elaborate on for those who aren’t sure what I’m referring to. I’m primarily talking about any rich, earthy material that’s gone through a decomposition/stabilization (i.e. “humification”) process – such as various types of compost, well-aged manure, decomposed leaf litter etc – but really, any old partially decayed organic matter may fit the bill. These materials are great for inoculating your worm bin/bed with loads of beneficial microbes (and other organisms) and/or helping to keep your system in balance later on.

I have loads of “living material” on hand – and you know how much I LOVE using it – but I want to keep this case study as “typical” as I can, so I only added a small amount of very well-aged, bedded horse manure (dark in color, earthy smelling) – it was simply ground up and sprinkled into the food waste.

Adding the waste materials to the bedding didn’t involve any special techniques or strategies (such as layering etc) – I simply dumped it on top then mixed everything up. The idea is to get the wastes as spread out as possible, again with the aim of avoiding the development of anaerobic zones.

Some of you may be wondering about adding water (since my bedding was bone dry when added). In all honesty, given the moisture content of the waste materials, I probably would have been fine just leaving everything as is for the time being – but I ended deciding to add some water for the sake of (hopefully) speeding things up a bit.

As per usual, nothing is set-in-stone here, and I will definitely be making adjustments before the worms are added, but for those are curious, I filled a standard mason jar with aged tap water and slowly poured it over the mix in the bin.

I finished off the bin by adding a layer of dry shredded cardboard – this time created by tearing up toilet paper and paper towel rolls.

Now it’s time to let the bin sit and age for at least a week (personal preference – not mandatory). If you DID want to get started more quickly – i.e. add the worms the same day or soon after setting up – my recommendation would be to mix in a lot more (high quality) living materials, and to be more careful with the amount of waste that’s added. Keep in mind that the habitat should be well-moistened without a lot of liquid pooling on the bottom, and there shouldn’t be strong foul odors when the worms are added. One potential “fix”, though – aside from mixing in more dry bedding -would be to simply leave the lid off with a light shining over top for the first few days (so please don’t assume that a stinky/wet bin can’t be used).

OK – that’s enough of an eyeful for one post!
I’ll aim to provide an aging update towards the end of next week.
Stay tuned.

P.S. One thing I forgot to mention is that this bin is being kept in my basement. I don’t recommend using plastic tub systems – especially enclosed ones – outside during hot(summer) or cold(winter) conditions. I’m not saying it CAN’T be done (in certain locations, taking various precautions etc) – but it may be more challenging (or even virtually impossible in some locations).

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    • Vincent Z.
    • July 6, 2012

    Good bedding is really really key for a successful worm bin. It cannot be emphasized enough. I think I’m about two weeks into my first bin. In that time frame I have cooked my starter worms, dried out the replacement a tad too much and perhaps made it bit too acidic.

    Just a few days ago, I found an old slab of corrugated cardboard outside in the yard. I wet it with some aged water and let it sit for a few hours. I put it in after and when I checked in on them a few hours more later… the worms were and still are going to town with that stuff.

    My initial bedding was corrugated cardboard but mixed with tons of coffee grounds since I heard that worms dig those two. It was about 3:2, coffee:cardboard. I don’t think the worms liked it that much until right before I added the new bedding. Right before I added the new bedding, the worms finally disappeared from the surface and sides of the bin (They were hanging out a ton on the sides).

    So yeah, bedding it up and age it to have the bin take off quickly with little to no problems. So pretty much everything you said in this post. I’m just emphasizing it.

  1. I still have and use my first Rubbermaid tote. This year I started all over again by empting all of my bins of worms into one larger plastic tote. Now for the first time, I have a plague of fungus gnats. All of the reference material I am using to purge my bin of gnats comes from this website. I am grateful for Bentley and other readers who encourage me not to give up as realize that gnat problems are just little bumps in the road.

    • Jen
    • July 11, 2012

    I am contemplating the use of worms at the cottage, but am a bit worried I’ll kill them all. We sometimes are away for two weeks at a time, and during that time the cottage can get up to 30 degrees C. How long can they go without “food” and how warm can they get? Thanks for all the info!

    • Bentley
    • July 12, 2012

    VINCENT – Glad you ended up adding more cardboard to your coffee grounds / cardboard mix (and that you’ve come to appreciate the value of good bedding materials). That definitely sounded pretty high on the coffee side. Coffee grounds can be a tricky material at the best of times – especially when first added.
    MARK – You’re definitely not alone. I get gnats and/or fruit flies at least once or twice a year (if not more often). I’ve just kinda accepted them as part of the package by now. Thankfully they’re not really an issue in my outdoor beds.
    Jen – if the bin has really good ventilation, I think the worms should be fine at 30 C. You definitely don’t need to worry about them starving, as long as there is a lot of bedding in the bin. I’ve left bins for literally months at a time. Where people can really run into trouble is trying to overcompensate for being away for a period of time – there is a tendency to overfeed before leaving, and then they are not around when the worms actually need their help. You can add SOME food before you leave, but definitely don’t go overboard.

    • Lynn Davis
    • July 17, 2012

    Hey Bentley; just want to add my thanks for all the great info. I found you today; wish it had been earlier.
    Started with 1# worms about 10 months ago–one Rubbermaid bin and strips of torn newspaper bedding. I have survived a major die-off from too little water, major problems with the paper clumping (never again!), and disbelief over how much the little buggers need to eat. The worms are now thick in two bins, and I’m ready to do my first harvesting.
    Sorry to hear you’re not shipping this year, but grateful for your fine website. Thanks again, Lynn

    • Bentley
    • July 18, 2012

    Hi Lynn,
    Thanks for the kind words – glad you found me!
    Not sure how you got the impression that I wasn’t shipping this year (perhaps you visited my Canadian site? If so, it’s important to note that my small Canadian biz is different from my U.S. drop-shipping via the Red Worm Composting website – the latter is all taken care of by a fantastic U.S. supplier and there is never any downtime).
    Definitely open for business!



    • Pattie
    • July 31, 2012

    Hi Bentley,
    I just want to say “Thanks” for all the information you are sharing. I just found your plastic bin installments, and I plan to follow your directions and advice soon in my 4th/5th/6th grade special ed classroom. We’ll be using “worms” and “soil” for our beginning of the year literature/reading and writing themes. The kids will LOVE having worms in the classroom. Thank you for the emails and the access to so many resources. (By the way, along with numerous picture books on worms & soil, we’ll be focusing on “Diary of a Worm” and “How to Eat Fried Worms”)

    • Sue
    • August 2, 2012

    Plastic Worm Bin Follow-Along
    I transferred the worm to a paper-shredded bin – well stuffed with paper. You people have stated you use cardboard.
    When transferred over, the worms and the apples they were munching on came as a package along with some of the soil? (black stuff). There was enough of it that I did not add any fresh peat moss.
    They have been trying to escape up the sides and I am not sure why.
    The paper is moist but no where near soaking wet. And another pile of food scraps was added to a different corner.
    What’s up with this?
    How to fix?

    • Bentley
    • August 2, 2012

    “You people”??
    Haha (sorry – weird little things make me laugh)

    Yep, I do indeed love using shredded cardboard as a worm bin bedding material since it holds water well while providing air spaces for good oxygenation. Having LOTS of good bedding in your system is pretty important. You mentioned “shredded paper” – if it’s white office paper this MIGHT be part of the problem. Using it as a primary bedding material can sometimes create issues if it hasn’t been soaked and drained enough. This paper can contain chemicals that irritate/harm the worms.
    Did you let the new bin sit and age for a period of time before adding the worms – or did you set it up the same day you received them? Usually an aging period (for a mix of bedding and food) can help to make the habitat a bit more “worm friendly”

    Anyway – a couple things you might try are: 1) leaving the lid off AND 2) shining a light down into the bin. This should help the worms to settle in more quickly assuming the habitat down below is reasonably worm-friendly.

    Also – keep in mind that some worm roaming is fairly normal – so don’t be concerned if you regularly find a few adventurous worms up the sides or on the underside of the lid.

    P.S. You may want to check out the rest of my plastic worm bin follow-along series (might be some additional helpful details)

    • Bentley
    • August 2, 2012

    PATTIE – sorry, I almost missed your comment there! Thanks for your kind words. Always happy to know that people are finding my info helpful (especially when it involves educating kids about this stuff)

    • Sue
    • August 2, 2012

    It is shredded newspaper.
    Also some cardboard egg containers.
    Nearly stuffed to the top with the newspapers.

    Wetted but not dripping wet.

    When I received them about 2 months ago, they were trying to escape and when the soil was sifted thru, there was only a couple of potato peelings. Not a couple of potatos’ worth but just 3 to 4 one inch pieces. When food was added, they seemed happy. No more escape attempts.

    the reason I switched it over was the guy who gave them to me said he had them for a couple of years. And done nothing much with them. So I thot maybe it was time to change their bedding.

    Is the newspaper too fine for them?

    • Bentley
    • August 2, 2012

    Hi Sue,
    With the additional details, your situation definitely sounds much better! Shredded newspaper can work well, but if it’s actually been put through a shredder (vs hand shredding larger strips) you may want to mix in something a bit bulkier.

    Good idea freshening things up when you received them! A couple of years is a LONG time to leave a worm bin without an overhaul.

    • Sue
    • August 4, 2012

    Thanks for your help.
    They are now staying put – in a big wriggling ball under the newspaper.
    It is quite an interesting time to remove all the straggler worms – mostly the really small ones – from the ‘old’ stuff. The old stuff is being added to my garden bit by bit.
    hmmm maybe I could make some compost tea with it.

    • Steve
    • October 15, 2012

    Just found this site about an hour ago and been reading for that amount of time. Can’t believe all the mistakes I have been making. lol. Poor worms. I will be reading daily now and making some serious changes. Thanks so much!

  2. Hi,
    I’m a total newbie at this but am learning a lot!
    I just started a mini-bin with a bunch of worms I found while landscaping and am going to buy a pound or two soon…. but was wondering…once the worms start producing lots of castings, how do you separate/harvest the castings out of a bin for fertilizer for my garden?
    How many worms do I need per square foot of veggie garden.?
    I now live in the Seattle area…


    • Bentley
    • April 1, 2013

    Mr. Comedian (lol)
    I recommend checking out the harvesting section on the hot topics page for links to helpful blog posts on the topic. Davids tub harvesting method is particularly well suited for those with tub systems.

    Generally, I don’t recommend adding composting worms to a regular garden. You would need a lot of rich organic matter in the soil to make it work. Better to use a vermicomposting trench or a worm tower etc (i.e. some sort of vermicomposting habitat that is closely associated with the garden)

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