Through research and education, the Rich Earth Institute is encouraging the conversion of human urine into fertilizer. They argue that this diversion of human waste can help to save water, reduce pollution, and provide farmers with a sustainable alternative to synthetic fertilizers.
According to Rich Earth, a single adult produces between 378-567 liters of urine each year. While the majority of households flush this waste, the organization wants to help the public see urine as a resource, rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium—the very nutrients needed to produce food.
Many farmers support crop yields with the application of synthetic fertilizers. But these chemicals can harm the environment, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showing that an excess of synthetic nitrogen can contribute to the thinning of the ozone layer, pollute drinking water, and deplete oxygen in aquatic ecosystems.
Since 2012 Rich Earth’s trials have shown that fields fertilized with urine can produce yields comparable to those treated with synthetic fertilizers. The organization’s research also demonstrates the urine they use is safe to apply to crops, explains Kim Nace, Co-Founder of Rich Earth. “You can [call it] sanitized urine, because that’s actually what we do: We pasteurize the urine…So it is sanitized, it is safe.”
Nace adds that they also monitor their fertilizer for traces of pharmaceutical compounds. “I would eat lettuce from any of those plots [treated with recycled urine]” because residual levels of these chemicals are “not a significant factor.”
But others may be more cautious. That is why, through Rich Earth’s spin-off company Brightwater Tools, they are working to remove these chemical compounds even further from their end product through the process of charcoal filtration.
This waste recycling also has benefits for the environment, helping to keep waterways cleaner. “By collecting urine and keeping it out of the wastewater stream, we can contain the pharmaceuticals before they reach sensitive aquatic ecosystems and water supplies,” write the authors of a guide intended to help others launch their own urine diversion programs.
In the 10 years since Rich Earth first launched as a community-scale urine nutrient recovery project, “it has just blossomed,” Nace tells Food Tank. “We’ve saved a lot of water, we have over 200 people that donate urine, and we have nine local farmers that use the fertilizer we create.”
Nace acknowledges that there is a “yuck factor” that many may experience when first introduced to the idea of the process. But she believes education can help the public embrace urine recycling.
“We have an extensive educational outreach program,” Nace tells Food Tank. “We go to schools with kids, and colleges, universities have us present for some of their classrooms. And once people hear about it, they’re with us.”
Listen to the full conversation with Kim Nace on “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg” to hear about how Brightwater Tools is supporting Rich Earth’s mission, the role of education in helping people overcome their aversion to waste collection, and the benefits of this work for farmers.
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Photo courtesy of Daniel Lloyd Blunk-Fernández, Unsplash