Worm Return was born informally when founder Laura Totin Codori started composting kitchen waste at home in the early 2000s…
…which turned into an informal neighborhood (Allentown!)-based composting and community agriculture co-op
…which turned into a class project for an Entrepreneurship & Innovation class at Robert Morris University in the spring of 2017
…which turned into Worm Return in the summer of 2017!
Q: Tell us more about Worm Return and where the inspiration came from.
A: I have always been environmentally concerned. I composted for years, even though I don’t garden, because it didn’t make sense to throw food waste in the garbage when I could throw it in my backyard and make “dirt.” Then I read a book called “You Grow, Girl!” by Gayla Trail. She discussed the concept of vermicomposting and that’s when I knew I wanted worms. I bought my first 1,000 in 11/2013. By the end of 2019, Worm Return plans to sell 700,000 worms annually.
Q: What made it possible for your company to start?
A: Looking to get a better job, I returned to college in 2015. In 2017, I had to take a class in entrepreneurship as a requirement. I never thought of myself as the entrepreneurial type. In fact, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur; my plan was to become a financial advisor. I knew the class wouldn’t be too bad since it was with a professor I’d had before, Dr. Catherine Lada. The class broke up into groups and we were tasked to brainstorm business concepts to be chosen as a semester-long project that would replicate the process of starting a business. I told my group that I had always daydreamed of owning my own compost business and that I had done a bit of the legwork. One of my teammates advocated for my idea and it was chosen by the group. As we developed our business and I went to Dr. Lada for feedback, she took a special interest and suggested that I pursue this outside the classroom. She helped me a great deal to get to the point where I am today
Q: Why Pittsburgh?
A: It’s definitely not because of the weather! This is my hometown. I was raised in the suburbs, but I have always had a strong affinity for the South Side of Pittsburgh. I was introduced to the neighborhood of Allentown and I fell in love. I have a great home, great neighbors, great views, and a great location. As a board member of the Allentown Community Development Corporation, I wanted to also open my business in Allentown. I’ve really always thought Pittsburgh to be on the forefront in an environmental issues. One of my favorite campaigns was Mayor Bob O’Connor asking the town to “Redd Up” for the all-star game in 2006. Now we have Mayor Peduto standing strong with the Paris Climate Agreement and setting goals for real environmental impact by 2030.
Q: How does Worm Return’s method differ from common composting?
A: Composting with worms is called vermicomposting, but the name is very deceiving. By definition, composting is a process that happens at high temperatures. Worms cannot withstand the temperatures that are needed for composting. Instead of relying on heat to break down the organic material, vermicomposting relies on the digestive systems of worms. The final product, vermicompost or more accurately, worm castings or vermicast, is actually used as an amendment to traditional compost.
Q: What’s next for Worm Return?
A: Worm Return is looking for space to be able to expand our worm operations. The goal is to remain in the Allentown neighborhood, but we would entertain other Hilltop communities if the building was right. Regardless of location, we are looking to bring on our first intern in the spring semester. I am very excited at the prospect of working with a student like myself to help take the business out of the start-up phase. The most immediate project on the horizon is our acceptance to the fourth cohort of PGH Lab where we will be piloting the use of worm systems to reduce waste in City offices.
Q: What suggestions or advice might you have for other startups and entrepreneurs beginning in Pittsburgh?
A: My desire to build a better Allentown has gotten me out in the neighborhood where I can learn how to grow my business to meet the needs of our advancing community. Take advantage of opportunities that are being created in our great city. One in particular is the Mayor’s partnership with the URA to develop the Micro-Loan Program. An additional benefit to the loan application paired me with professionals from the Chatham Women’s Business Center to help me develop my business plan. Pittsburgh understands that small businesses build a strong economic backbone for a community and the City provides the innovative entrepreneur an environment that facilitates the success of small businesses.