Testing urine as fertilizer

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BRATTLEBORO -- As a part of a collaboration, the Rich Earth Institute is testing the application of fertilizer in an unusual form -- human urine.

Wanting to take a further step toward sustainable farming, the grass-roots nonprofit decided to team up with scientists at the University of Vermont and the Environmental Protection Agency to dedicate its first project to researching a modern version of the age-old farming method. The goal is to produce greater and healthier crop yields.

Rich Earth Institute Administrative Director Kim Nace and Research Director Abe Noe-Hays co-founded the nonprofit in 2011 to put their individuals talents to use for the benefit of the Earth and its vegetation.

According to Nace, more than 60 volunteers have been collecting urine for this experiment since April. The institute will use 600 gallons to compare the fertilizing power of urine to that of conventional chemical fertilizer. Hayfield said soil with no fertilizer at all will also be tested. All samples will be sent to EPA labs.

This project -- the first of its kind in the country -- builds on research from European nations like Sweden and Germany, which Nace said are "at least 10 years ahead of (the United States)."

She said urine-diverting toilets, which separate urine and water once it is flushed, are sprouting up all over the continent.

The Rich Earth Institute, located on Fuller Drive in Brattleboro, expects its results to indicate urine is a viable, and possibly better, alternatives to chemical fertilizers.

"We’re very proud of this project," Nace said. "We targeted this project based our research and knowledge of what the sanitation field and agriculture is like."

She added that water quality also intersects with sanitation and agriculture in this project.

Nace said the institute worked with UVM to make sure all urine to be used was properly sanitized. She said 300 gallons were pasteurized and another 300 were stored at a certain temperature for a month. The ammonia in the urine kills any harmful elements in it, she said.

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All the urine has also been tested for fecal coliform, Nace said.

Noe-Hays said this idea has been in his mind since he was a student at the College of the Atlantic, an environmental liberal arts college of about 350 students in Bar Harbor, Maine. Noe-Hays majored in agricology and graduated in 2000.

He has worked in the United State and Central America and now owns his own company, Full Circle Compost Consulting, which designs and installs urine-diverting toilets.

"It became clear to me that the system we use now for agriculture is a broken loop," he said. He realized humans literally send a natural and useful fertilizer down the toilet every time they flush and became interested in a method that would avoid having to find phosphate after it became deposited in the ecosystem.

Noe-Hays explained deer and moose graze on vegetation in the forest before their waste fertilizes the same land, and he liked the thought of combining that idea with humans’ high standard of sanitation.

He said the amount of nutrients in a year’s worth of urine from one person is almost all the fertilizer needed to grow food for that person in that span.

Nace said all human waste can be highly effective and sustainable fertilizer, as it contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Reusing sanitized human waste can reduce the pollution of lakes and ponds as well as lessen the burden on sewage treatment plants, conserve water and produce a low-cost fertilizer for farmers.

Vern Grubinger, of UVM Extension, said figuring out alternative sources of fertilizers is important because there is a limited amount of phosphorus in the world and it cannot be manmade.

Nace said she hopes the institute gets a lot of community support and people take notice of the results the project yields.

"We’re very excited about this," she said.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.


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