Looking for a new source of fertilizer? Urine luck

Saturday April 20, 2013

Remember when you were a kid and you discovered something that amazed you? That made the world seem bigger and more powerful and fantastical than you'd imagined? A patch of fern-filled forest, or crossing your first enormous bridge, or a movie you took into your bones?

It's harder as an ordinary grown-up to make discoveries that uplift and upend. Our world is tarnished and feverishly loud; noble action cedes to name-calling; a highway or a landfill borders every stretch of woods. We know the innocent suffer unjustly. How can anyone unearth awe and hope?

It turns out there's plenty of marvelousness left, and we carry it inside us.

Literally, inside us. There is revelation to be had here. You just have to start at a most disregarded place.

"Do you want to see the toilet?" asks Kim Nace, co-founder and administrative director of Brattleboro's Rich Earth Institute. The nascent nonprofit is spearheading research on the use of sanitized urine as agricultural fertilizer; their pilot studies are the first in the United States. And let's be clear: they're not talking about, say, bobcat waste, or a liquefied version of bat guano. They mean human urine. For their 2013 research project, that could even include your urine.

Kim and co-founder and research director Abe Noe-Hays of Putney stand up from Kim's living room table and walk to the small but airy bathroom. They've been talking for an hour about the work of the Institute, but their enthusiasm is as vibrant as when they began.

"Here it is," Kim says, grinning. "I love showing this off. People don't know what to expect when they see a urine-diverting composting toilet -- who does, really? But they're always surprised at how quiet and clean and odor-free it is."

Abe nods. "It works very well in this space," he says, and he should know -- he built it. An expert in composting toilets, or, more accurately, dry sanitation systems, he's been designing, manufacturing and maintaining such systems for individuals and organizations for more than a decade.

Kim points out the special blue toilet bowl with separate sections for urine and feces -- "I had to order the bowl from Sweden," Abe says. "They're much further ahead of us in urine diversion and collection." -- and the small bucket of wood shavings used to help decompose the solid waste and control its odor.

With eloquent passion in Kim's case, and self-possessed drive in Abe's, the co-founders lead the way to the basement. They stand proudly next to the two blue solid-waste collection bins and the 250-gallon urine collection tank, enclosed in a large, cheerfully medieval-looking cage. The entire system is precise and clean, with a fan and vents controlling odor and other design elements encouraging solid waste decomposition.

Abe and Kim's main focus, though, is the urine collection tank, which is nearly at capacity after about eight months use by the house's three inhabitants.

"We'll pump it out for the first time on April 30," Abe says. They both look excited.

"And it's likely officials from the Boston Environmental Protection Agency will be here to see it," Kim adds, looking thrilled. The federal attention is a good thing, because what the Rich Earth Institute will do with all that urine has the potential to address some very, very big problems.

Back at the table, Abe lays out the troublesome situation. "Our agricultural system is a broken circle," he explains. "Products sold off the farm always take some of the land's fertility with them, because it takes nitrogen and phosphorus and potassium to grow them. So a farm has to replace that lost fertility in order to be able to continue to grow more food. Farms typically use huge amounts of chemical fertilizers as the replacement."

Most conventional fertilizers are expensive. Some nutrients, like phosphorus, are rare and becoming more so. Most conventional nitrogen is derived from fossil fuels. Finding, creating, transporting and applying fertilizer in mass quantities is a costly, fraught undertaking.

Abe first explored this losing dynamic as a Human Ecology student at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. He also discovered where that lost fertility went.

"People eat the food, and then we excrete those nutrients, whatever our bodies can't use," he says. "All this fertility from the farms ends up in the sewers. We have to process it in wastewater treatment plants. It ends up polluting our waterways. It's completely crazy."

It was also inspiringly obvious to him that figuring out how to recapture and reuse these nutrients, particularly nitrogen -- and phosphorus-rich human urine -- was crucial work, a life's work.

Kim came to the same conclusion from a different perspective: clean water.

"I've been administrator in education for a long time, but there's always been a passion on the back burner for sanitation and water," she says. Abe listens quietly, respectfully, as Kim does when he talks. "When I worked for two years in Chennai, India, and there was a city of eight million people and basically no toilets, the issues returned to me in a big, big way."

Kim reached out to Abe in 2011 when she was a turning point in her career. She wanted to do something meaningful, something that could powerfully address problems in sanitation and clean water.

She knew about Abe's work with composting toilets, so she called him up.

"I basically said, ‘Want help?'" Kim laughs. "And we formed Rich Earth in the fall of 2011."

In their first year, Abe and Kim formed a dedicated board of directors who, among other vital tasks, helped them recruit 60 local residents to collect and donate their urine.

In the summer of 2012, Rich Earth then used that urine, 600 gallons of it, to conduct a scientifically rigorous, state-approved pilot study of the liquid's fertilizing potential on ten acres of hayfield at Fairwinds Farm in Brattleboro. The sections treated with sanitized human urine produced nearly six times as much hay as untreated sections. More thorough nutrient analyses of the hay are forthcoming.

A $15,000 USDA grant to continue and expand their research means that Abe and Kim are actively looking for more people to donate urine for the 2013 studies at Fairwinds.

"We have the tank from my basement," says Kim. "But we hope to recruit 150 people to donate 3,000 gallons." She looks happily overwhelmed at the thought of the work to reach that goal. "That's a big number, but once you get through the ‘ick' factor, people are really excited about contributing. Whatever the reason, people have strong feelings about human waste. To turn that into a positive thing is powerful."

Abe looks similarly motivated and daunted at the thought of the 2013 projects. "There is so much to do to get this running," he says. "We want to test new urine processing methods. We want to experiment with reducing the liquid volume. We want to experiment with methods to further reduce pathogens and pharmaceuticals that end up in urine. We want to help other communities recycle urine. We want to install a public urine-diverting toilet. It's a lot, and that's just some of it."

He smiles quietly, and Kim nods her head emphatically. There's also a lot to be done to raise funds for the Institute; the co-founders have yet to pay themselves for their full-time work.

Then they both grin. "But it's exciting, too." Abe says. "We're part of a larger, worldwide movement around urine-as-fertilizer and wastewater treatment and waterway protection, and other organizations in the U.S. are excited that we're actually doing field work."

They begin to talk about that evening's board meeting, and the new home urine collection tools, and an upcoming scientific conference. Their conversation is rich; it's smart and hopeful. It's the sound of people discovering the forest, the Brooklyn Bridge, the first great movie. It's the sound of people helping make that marvelous world.

To learn more about Rich Earth Institute and about becoming a urine donor, contact Kim Nace at kim@richearthinstitute.org or 802-579-1857, or visit www.richearthinstitute.org.
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.


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