BRATTLEBORO >> While some may feel uncomfortable talking about their bodily fluids, several individuals feel their "waste" is actually "liquid gold" that can be used as fertilizer.
On Aug. 18 and 19, the Rich Earth Institute hosted more than 30 people from around the world for the second annual Urine Diversion Summit, to discuss the future of urine diversion and the public's perception, the regulatory process and new research from the scientific community. On Thursday the group headed over to the Whetstone Valley Farm where they heard from collaborators that help transport to or distribute urine onto the fields of participating farms.
Rich Earth Institute is pioneering sanitized human urine as an innovative and sustainable fertilizer.
At Whetstone Valley Farm last week, several people of the institute stood around several barrels of urine, shared ideas, learned from the project's transporter, Best Septic of Westminster, and then watched as Dean Hamilton, owner of Whetstone Valley Farm, distributed urine onto a field of hay on the property via a crop spreader.
"I thought urine and solids were toxic because so much energy is put into keeping them away from the human body, away from the house, as far away from the city center as possible, but it turns out that urine is nutrient rich," said Iishana Ratra, a volunteer at the Rich Earth Institute. "When all those nutrients are poured into the waterways, that's wreaks havoc with the balance, so that was a real paradigm shift for me that it's nutrient rich and not toxic."
The tour of the farm followed informative and innovative presentations as well as a second day of collaborative group work at the Marlboro Graduate Center. During these talks, the people of the institute, which is located in Brattleboro, celebrated their accomplishments and discussed new and upcoming technologies, ways to address current challenges and what the future holds for pee-cycling.
This project is not done alone and the urine comes from many enthusiastic and environmental locals. One hundred or so active volunteers/donors collect their pee with special toilets in their homes that separate their urine from "No. 2," instead of flushing their pee down the drain. After collected, the urine undergoes sanitation. It is then put on hay fields in place of synthetic fertilizer. Workers of the institute believe this solution keeps pee out of the waterways and protects water quality.
"Our 'liquid gold' is an abundant source of sustainable fertilizer, but we currently flush it into sewers where it causes nutrient pollution that is costing municipalities billions to remediate," states the Rich Earth Institute's website on its "Rethinking Urine" page.
Others feel there are stigmas around urine-reuse that should be addressed and highlighted for the benefit of the planet. Research Director at the Rich Earth Institute, Abraham Noe-hays, said the institute just completed a grant for the EPA looking at pharmaceutical residues left in urine and found there are "nearly negligible levels" getting into food. Therefore, by applying onto soil and plants, they have found that any pharmaceutical residues are breaking down and not making it in to crops.
"The stigma with the uptake of pharmaceutical getting into food, we're pretty much debunking that, because we're seeing parts per trillion, which is a tiny, tiny, tiny amount," said Noe-hays. "You would have to eat 150,000 carrots to get one dose of Tylenol if you had carrots fertilized with our urine."
Nadav Malin, President of Building Green, a consultancy and technical writing firm out of Brattleboro, said the Rich Earth Institute is all about "forging the way" and learning lessons. Malin feels there are must better ways to deal with waste water, and as a business owner he says Building Green helps this project through its publications that reach engineers and architects and he participated in several conferences about the work that is being done with urine-reuse.
"It really is some advance thinking that's looking to solutions that we need for the future of human survival on the planet," said Malin. "The way we treat waste water as a society is really broken; it costs a ton of money and doesn't do a good job, and the Rich Earth Institute is really pioneering all new approaches."
While some may still have a hard time dealing with hay fields that are covered with urine fertilizer, Malin noted there are some solutions that reduce the odor, such as adding a bit of vinegar. In terms of portion size, Malin suggests, two cups of vinegar to a five gallon bucket of urine seems to work fine.
Kim Nace, co-founder and executive director of the Rich Earth Institute, said she is passionate about the work being done at the institute because she feels the current waste water system is not sustainable and is collapsing. Nace noted that she was greatly impressed with the summit and to hear about all the ongoing and complete research around this project and notes the summit consisted of an "eclectic" group of actors, research scientists, volunteers and more.
Nace said some of the findings and research thus far has been around antibiotic resistant genes, new toilet designs, transportation methods, reduction of urine volume and more. She noted some of the people from the summit have international goals with this method as well, such as Lillian (last name anonymous), who has been working to "reinvent the toilet" in places that don't have toilets, such as refugee camps. Lillian is working to bring toilets that separate number 1 and number 2 to countries in the Middle East as a response to the Arab Spring that occurred in 2011, where she said people were referring to unsustainable matters.
Ultimately, Nace feels that urine diversion is a step society needs to take for waste water treatment.
"With almost nine billion people coming to live on this planet, there's no way we can do it any other way," said Nace. "People are recycling their water in the West Coast, and their flush water is going to be recycled into their drinking water," said Nace. "We have to change the way we do this, and we think decuppling human waste from the water stream is probably the least expensive and most intelligent way to manage our waste."
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275