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Do Red Wigglers Eat Cardboard, Cartons and Other Papers?


shredded cardboard for worm composting

Red wigglers aren’t exactly picky eaters, but they do need somewhat of a balanced diet if they are going to thrive. Your red wigglers are surviving in a controlled environment, so whatever you feed them is their source of nutrition. Cardboard, cartons, and other papers are an important element in composting. And, you probably know this by now, but a happy and healthy worm enjoys a variety of food options.

But, do red wigglers eat cardboard, cartons and other papers? Red wigglers do eat cardboard, cartons, and other papers as long as they are properly shredded. If you’re a seasoned worm farmer, you know that there aren’t many things that red wigglers won’t eat. However, just because they will eat these paper products, doesn’t mean they should eat only these things.

Keep reading to find out why red wigglers do love eating cardboards and papers, but also why they shouldn’t eat cardboard and paper all the time. Also, you’ll find out how to “serve” cardboard to your worms in a safe way.

Why Red Wigglers Eat Cardboard, Cartons and Other Papers

Before we dive into the compost pile, it’s important to note that red wigglers will eat any of the paper items we’ve mentioned, they really favor cardboard and food cartons. But why? Why do worms like cardboard? There are many different theories floating around out there that might explain this phenomenon. Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm offers a couple of theories (source):

The Glue is Delicious? Maybe?

Delicious by worm standards, of course. But worms will also eat other papers that don’t have glue smeared all over it. So, it is possible that the worms think of glue as their icing on the cardboard cake, but it’s likely not to be the only reason.

What Was in the Cartons?

Many cardboard cartons are made to carry some sort of food or drink product. Unless you’re scrubbing, rinsing, and drying all of your cartons before tossing them to the worms, chances are, there’s still a little food residue or juice remaining on the fibers. This may be another reason that the red wigglers are eating these paper products.

Cardboard Food Contains Less Additional Flavors

Lots of things go into your worm bin. Some of them have an earthy flavor profile that appeals to worms; others don’t. If your worm squad is feasting on cardboard more than other recyclable papers, it might be because it’s been treated with fewer chemicals than others; therefore, they have the flavors that the worms are looking for. Pay attention to this! If you see that certain papers are not being consumed, consider removing them or lessening the amount added.

But, Should Red Wigglers Eat Cardboard, Cartons, and Other Papers?

Red wigglers can and will eat cardboard and papers, but they shouldn’t have too much of it. The “everything in moderation” rule applies to Red Wigglers, too. Although worms do think cardboard and paper are delicious, it is not, in fact, nutritious. A diet too heavy in cardboard and paper doesn’t add much nutritional value to your worms, and if they’re not eating properly, they won’t be able to compost efficiently (source).

The Rule of Browns and Greens

Vermicomposting with red wigglers should include a balance of nitrogen and carbon food sources.

Now, I spoke with a worm farmer when I began my vermicomposting journey and she suggested following a four-to-one ratio of greens and browns to feed the Red Wigglers. This means for every four “greens,” you feed your worms; you can add one “brown” snack. I’ve found this not to work in my situation. Greens are generally nitrogen and water-rich. Too many greens can give you a slimy, wet mess in your bin. Remember too that the bedding itself is carbon-rich with shredded papers, cardboard, or whatever else you may have used. And so, I found this ratio to be way off for my purposes from the start.

My advice is to approach this with common sense and adjust based on what you see. If you start noticing that your worms are trying to escape, there is likely an imbalance in the worm bin. It could be one of several factors including the food mixture. If you notice that the worms are not consuming all of the greens that you are putting in, add less each time until you find a balance. Click here to read my guide on how long red wigglers can go without food.

Green (Nitrogen-Rich) Foods For Compost Worms

Green foods include fruits and veggies, peels, rinds, and all those other water-rich foods. Here are a few ideas, but you can get creative with your own greens. Your red wigglers will develop a preference and let you know what they like and what they don’t.

  • Fruit peels (no citrus)
  • Carrots (generally lower in water content)
  • Cucumbers
  • Lettuce
  • Broccoli and Cauliflower Stems
  • Squash
  • Corn Cobs
  • Melon Rinds

Brown (Carbon-Rich) Foods For Red Wigglers

Brown foods should be limited, kind of like desserts. Although the worms literally eat them up, you don’t want them to fill up on these:

  • Cardboard
  • Coffee Grounds
  • Teabags
  • Paper (not glossy)
  • Boxes
  • Paper Egg Cartons
  • Dry leaves

Note that if you are using your finished worm compost for gardening, the organic nature of your fruits and vegetables are only as organic as the food that you feed your worms. Vegans, for example, will want to be mindful that the food harvested is consistent with their eating practices. In any case, you may not want to put anything into your worm bin that you would curl your nose up at in your own diet if you plan to grow food using the castings. Something to think about.

Chemicals in Cardboard and Papers

Cardboards, food cartons, and certain papers are often times treated with hard, unnatural chemicals and dyes. We dug into this a while back to determine if Amazon Boxes could be composted.

While it’s okay for worms to eat some cardboards, it’s not a great idea to feed them anything that’s been processed to the extreme. Here are some dangers that can be found in cardboards and papers, and can be hazardous in large quantities to your worms:

  • Anything that’s been bleached white
  • Boxes or cartons with a shiny coating
  • Pigmented containers that might have artificial ink
  • Possibly contains plastic
  • Containers that appear to be or feel waxy

How to Choose Bedding Materials for Your Red Wigglers

Now that you know exactly what kind of cardboard and papers your worms can digest, you’re ready to make your worms’ “bedding.” Bedding is what the worms will crawl around in, eat, and eventually compost to produce worm castings. When choosing a material to use as bedding, you’ll want to consider a few things.

Does it Absorb and Retain Moisture?

Worms’ bodies are made up mostly of water. Therefore, it’s important that their home is conducive to helping them stay hydrated. If they’re living in a very dry environment, your red wigglers will literally shrivel up and die. Dramatic? Yes. But also, very true.

At the same time, you need those cardboards and papers to absorb some of the moisture. Excessive wetness can cause lots of problems, including worms drowning if the water pools and cannot drain.

Does it Enable Oxygen to Flow?

Breathing is also important to Red Wigglers. Bedding that’s too tightly compacted or pressed won’t allow airflow, which will eventually suffocate your worms. This can be complicated with excess moisture which will allow the bedding to compress more tightly. When this happens, it can clog the drain screen at the bottom of your bin, preventing the liquid from draining.

Does it Smell?

We might associate worms with garbage and odor, but contrary to that popular belief, worms don’t actually like bedding that stinks. They’re kind of like us. When picking materials for bedding, make sure it’s not smelly (even if you think it’s a pleasant smell). Fragrance-enriched papers should not be added.

Does it Have a Neutral pH?

Too much or too little acidity in the bedding material will actually upset the worm pile. (As I said earlier, it’s all about balance). It’s important to make sure that whatever you choose has a pH of right around 6.5-7. This is why we generally avoid citrus in a worm bin – too acidic. One of these Worm Farming pH Meters for Red Wiggler Composting Bins (link to Amazon) can help you determine whether or not you’re on the right track and help you stay in the pH sweet spot.

How to Shred Cardboard for Red Wigglers

Now the real fun begins, for you and your worms. To start shredding the bedding (that’s so fun to say), you’ll need:

  • Heavy Duty Paper Shredder
  • Scissors
  • Bedding materials of your choice
  • Your fingers

You don’t have to use a heavy-duty paper shredder (link to Amazon); your fingers or scissors will work just fine. But if you have one, it does make it a little easier. Another option, if you have kids around, is to let them help shred. It’s a great fine motor activity. You can even buy a see-through worm farm that they can maintain themselves that gives them the ability to watch the magic of vermicomposting through the sides of the bin.

In any case, just start shredding, ripping, and tearing. Red wigglers prefer their bedding to be shredded into strips, just about a half-inch to one inch long. Unlike other worms, red wigglers don’t really like to dive too deep for their food, so they’ll typically stay in the top six or so inches of their bedding. So, make sure you’ve got enough shredded to cover your worm bin and go about six inches deep.

You can sprinkle your worms’ bedding on top of the bin and let the worms work their Red Wiggler magic. Soon enough, they’ll be eating their way through it and composting at full speed.

Read our complete guide to keeping your compost worms healthy and happy!

Paul Brown

Paul has a two-acre yard on red clay soil in Southeast Texas. He knows exactly what the challenges are to nurturing a thriving yard in difficult soil. He takes a practical approach to yard improvement and enjoys putting best practices and “golden rules of lawn care” to the test. Click here for Paul’s author page

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