Say what?

Just when you thought it was safe to enjoy this column over your morning cup of coffee ... here’s an article on ... urine?

Really?

Let me explain.

Urine is a largely sterile, nutrient-rich resource that can be used in fertilizing plants. In fact, according to the Rich Earth Institute, the urine from one adult in a year can produce over 300 pounds of wheat -- enough for a loaf of bread per day.

The Rich Earth Institute is a Brattleboro-based organization that’s at the leading edge of this little-known practice of urine collection and use -- something that’s emerging in Sweden and a few other places. This past Friday night roughly 200 people gathered at the Strolling of the Heifers’ River Garden in downtown Brattleboro to hear Abe Noe-Hays and Kim Nace from the Rich Earth Institute, along with a New York City comedian/activist, Shawn Shafner, discuss the idea.

I thought I should weigh in and describe some of the benefits -- both from an energy and nutrient-flow standpoint.

Conventional practice

With conventional practice, human waste (urine and fecal matter) is mixed with large quantities of potable water and flushed down toilets. From there, it typically flows to municipal wastewater treatment plants where energy- and chemical-intensive processes use bacteria to break down organic wastes, separate out biosolids, kill pathogens, and release that water into rivers or aquifers.

Or, if we live in rural areas not served by a municipal sewer system, that wastewater flows into septic tanks where solids settle out and the effluent then flows into the soil through leach fields -- in most cases with most of the nutrients in that waste filtering down into the underground aquifers. I learned when researching on-site wastewater disposal years ago that the aquifers under rural New England towns almost always have nitrate levels that significantly exceed federal drinking water standards.

At the same time, in the chemical industry, tremendous quantities of natural gas are used in the Haber-Bosch process (invented in 1915) to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere, which is made up of roughly 78 percent nitrogen gas (N2), to produce ammonia fertilizer, the mainstay of commercial agriculture.

Utilizing human urine

When most people think of creating fertilizer from animal waste, they think of manure. Composted cow manure, for example, is widely sold in garden centers. But there are actually far more nutrients in urine than in fecal matter.

In human waste, 88 percent of the nitrogen is contained in the urine, along with 66 percent of the phosphorous, according to Swedish research, while nearly all of the hazards -- including bacterial pathogens -- are contained in the fecal matter.

The idea that the Rich Earth Institute has been advancing for the past several years is to collect human urine, sanitize that urine to kill any bacteria that may be in it (from urinary tract infections, for example, or fecal contamination), and then apply it on fields as a fertilizer.

Abe Noe-Hays, who used to work for our company, BuildingGreen, has been leading the charge with this idea in the U.S. The Rich Earth Institute secured funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program (administered in the Northeast by Dummerston resident and UVM Extension Professor Vern Grubinger, Ph.D.) to study urine collection and use as fertilizer, and the Institute is into its second year of this study.

Collecting urine

Specialized urine-separating flush toilets are available in Scandinavian countries with front chambers for capturing urine. Abe Noe-Hays manufacturers a urine-separating composting toilet, and the Institute provides special toilet insets for urine collection. On a larger scale, collection of urine from men’s rooms that have waterless urinals is very easy.

With the help of Best Septic Service, the Institute collected 3,000 gallons of urine from over 170 participants in 2013.

Sterilization

According to most experts, simply storing urine for a while in a sealed container is enough to kill bacteria, due to the high alkalinity and ammonia from the urine. But the Rich Earth Institute is experimenting with faster pasteurization systems that heat the urine (including with solar systems that circulate solar-heated fluid through heat exchangers in the urine tanks). They are also testing various strategies for controlling odor -- likely the biggest hurdle we face with urine collection and use.

Land application

In Sweden urine is being applied on food crops, but to date, with USDA support and permits from the state of Vermont, the Rich Earth Institute has stuck with less controversial applications on non-food crops -- specifically hay fields.

Initial results last year with undiluted urine and dilution rates of 1:1 and 3:1, dramatic improvement in hay production was seen. I will post photos in the BuildingGreen.com version of this article.

Because urine may contain pharmaceuticals, there is an important question about whether that poses a problem. This year, the Institute will begin an EPA-funded study to test whether residual pharmaceuticals in urine are taken up by vegetables grown on experimental plots.

Final thoughts

I have long been a fan of composting toilets. I like the idea of not mixing human waste with potable water, and I’ve always felt that flushing away the nutrients in human waste was a lost opportunity. But when I learned about urine separation and use (believe it or not in a luncheon presentation on the topic at a conference in Houston, Texas in 2009), I began to see the benefits of urine separation over standard composting toilets.

With standard composting toilets, most of the nitrogen in the waste ends up being volatized as either nitrogen gas or ammonia -- and lost into the atmosphere. With urine collection and use, the nutrients aren’t lost; they are recycled in a sustainable nutrient cycle.

This is something we’re considering for Leonard Farm, though we have not installed such a system yet. For more information or to participate in ongoing studies, contact the Rich Earth Institute: www.richearthinstitute.org.

Alex Wilson is the founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and the Resilient Design Institute (www.resilientdesign.org), both based in Brattleboro. Send comments or suggestions for future columns to alex@buildinggreen.com.