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‘Pee-Cycling:' Vermont Researchers Look at Value in Human Urine

The Rich Earth Institute sees agriculture value in urine as a fertilizer

A research group in southeastern Vermont says there’s a sustainable form of fertilizer that can feed the world’s crops and protect water quality by removing nutrients from sewer systems.

That fertilizer, the Rich Earth Institute says, is our own pee.

“It’s a taboo that needs to be discussed,” said Kim Nace, the co-founder of the Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro.

The institute studies and demonstrates the potential for our bathroom waste to be reused to fertilize farms or gardens, Nace explained.

She said human pee is full of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous, and other elements that can really help plants flourish.

Nace acknowledged, however, that some people may be uncomfortable with the notion of reusing urine, describing it as “the ick factor.”

“We in the United States—we’ve all grown up in a flush toilet world, pretty much,” Nace said. “And we’re very used to the idea of our waste just disappearing. But it doesn’t disappear. It goes to a sewage treatment plant or it goes into a septic system, and it contains nutrients—nutrients that, if we could recapture them, could be beneficial to agriculture.”

The liquid nourishing farmer Dean Hamilton’s hay field in Brattleboro is urine that the Rich Earth Institute sanitized using heat.

“It’s making the grass grow,” Hamilton told NBC 10 Boston. “I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t be [on board.]”

This week, dozens of people from across the country and even as far away as Palestine have come to Vermont to learn more about what’s been nicknamed “pee-cycling.”

“There is no such thing as waste,” said summit participant Sasha Kramer, who heads a non-profit group in Haiti called SOIL—for Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods. “One organism’s waste is food for another.”

Roughly a hundred community members around Brattleboro are bottling their own liquid waste for the Rich Earth study, bringing it in five-gallon jugs to a rather pungent collection site.

Then, in a lab, tests are looking at the effectiveness of fertilizing with urine, and whether any trace amounts of medications could be making it from the pee to the sunflowers and veggies in the garden.

“There’s very little pathogen issues with urine, but we pasteurize it, and that kills anything that’s in there,” noted Rich Earth research director Abe Noe-Hays.

Noe-Hays said the concept could slash reliance on chemicals and alleviate pressure on the nation’s aging wastewater treatment facilities and sewer pipes by diverting pee instead of flushing it.

He pointed out that cow, horse, and chicken waste are already fixtures on farm fields.

“It’s all animal manure of one sort or another,” Noe-Hays said, likening urine fertilizer to other, more familiar, forms of waste used in agriculture.

With interest from universities and grant money from the National Science Foundation supporting its work, the Rich Earth Institute plans to keep at this, insisting that—despite the uphill climb it’ll take to attract converts—there’s a golden opportunity in urine to fertilize the future.

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