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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Reclaiming Urine as Fertilizer

Application at a local farm. images courtesy of Rich Earth Institute.

Julia Cavicchi

The Rich Earth Institute is reclaiming urine as a precious resource. From their base in Brattleboro, Vermont, they have developed a novel approach to pee, diverting it out of the waste stream and returning it to the environment as fertilizer. Through the power of pee, they are developing solutions for both farms and water systems.

Urine diversion provides a sustainable source of fertilizer for local farms while also saving water and preventing downstream pollution. It captures the vital nutrients held in urine before they are lost down the drain. Rather than polluting waters elsewhere, nitrogen and phosphorous can be saved for use as a fertilizer.

Synthetic fertilizers are part of a broken nutrient system where large amounts of greenhouse gases are required to produce nitrogen, and phosphorous is a limited planetary resource. The potential for urine to replace synthetic fertilizers thus has wide-reaching implications beyond the local water systems involved.

Simply nourishing crops with urine was once a common practice; urine was framed as a waste product only in relatively recent history. Confiscated by public infrastructures, it seemingly disappears without a trace. The Rich Earth Institute is working to address the myth that waste vanishes around the U-bend.

Rather than flushing waste away, they are developing a novel approach to reclaiming the value of urine. Diverting urine from the waste stream offers a way for each of us to re-embed ourselves within our local ecologies. Through urine diversion, we find our own bodily functions intimately connected to both water quality and farm production. Urine-diverting toilets not only save urine as fertilizer but also reduce the amount of water that is wasted in flushing it away.

“Pee-cycling” can be done at home, following World Health Organization guidelines. Pee can be collected in stand-alone jugs or through a retro-fit to your toilet, with plastic inserts to divert the pee. It’s best to dilute your urine with water before applying it to plants. See the WHO guidelines for exact details to ensure safety and best practice: https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/wastewater/urineguidelines.pdf

A divided bowl toilet for use with urine diversion and the collection program.

Urine diversion is one accessible solution to a planetary problem, scaling from individual households to whole communities and beyond. The Rich Earth Institute has developed the nation’s first community-scale urine diversion program. In Vermont’s Connecticut River watershed, the Urine Nutrient Reclamation Program addresses both local sanitation challenges and regional ecological concerns.

The project brings the community together in unexpected ways. From the individual donors, to the farmers who apply the fertilizer, to the engineers and designers, it takes a village to make this process flow smoothly. Since the project’s inception in 2012, the community has collectively saved over 30,000 gallons of urine from entering the waste stream.

This project is made possible through funding from both the National Science Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, and other private foundations and small donors. In addition to the community project, the Institute is conducting research in partnership with the University of Michigan to develop innovative methods for urine diversion and scalability strategies.

Other communities can replicate what the Rich Earth Institute has made possible in the Connecticut River watershed. The Institute is eager to gain momentum for other community-scale urine diversion programs. For those communities interested in learning more, the Institute has developed a urine-diversion guide which is available online at richearthinstitute.org/urine-diversion-guide/.

In the midst of the inter-connected planetary crises of climate change, nutrient cycles, and water contamination, urine diversion shows how alternative futures are possible. “Pee-cycling” helps us to understand the entanglements between bodies of water and our own watery bodies, and re-embeds us within the nutrient cycle. This holistic approach to revaluing waste will be key to building resilience into communities in uncertain times to come.

Julia Cavicchi is an ECO-AmeriCorps member serving with the Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont. www.richearthinstitute.org.

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