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The Commons
Voices / Viewpoint

We can't keep using clean drinking water to flush fertilizer down the drain

With promising initial research, the Rich Earth Institute prepares for growth

Kim Nace is the administrative director of the Brattleboro-based Rich Earth Institute.

Originally published in The Commons issue #287 (Wednesday, January 7, 2015). This story appeared on page D2.



Over the past three years, working with limited resources, the Rich Earth Institute has made great progress toward establishing Brattleboro as the national research center for the study of urine-based fertilizer.

With initial funding by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF), and many local donors, and in collaboration with researchers at the University of Michigan and the University at Buffalo, we have built the nation’s first community-scale urine recycling program.

* * *

We have sanitized and applied more than 5,000 gallons of urine to hayfields in controlled field trials, establishing its value as a replacement for synthetic fertilizer in hay production.

In 2014, we completed the first season of EPA-contracted field trials tracking residual pharmaceuticals in urine-based fertilizers. With our university partners and the tireless assistance of our intern, Neil Patel, we are determining whether trace levels of medicines from urine-based fertilizers can persist in soils, agricultural crops, or groundwater.

Preliminary results are encouraging, and final results, which are being anticipated widely by the wastewater-treatment and sustainable-agriculture sectors, will be available in 2016.

Plumbing codes can be an obstacle to innovation, but the Rich Earth Institute has been working with a national committee of experts to proactively revise the Uniform Plumbing Code to allow a variety of urine-diverting toilets. The International Association of Plumbers and Mechanical Officers (IAPMO) recognizes the importance of toilets that recycle waste into fertilizer, and requested the formation of this code committee.

These new standards for urine-diverting and composting toilets will allow plumbers, architects, and builders to legally install a variety of new systems in our homes and public places. Rich Earth Institute’s research director, Abe Noe-Hays, was integral to this effort. The entire national team of ecological sanitation experts are dedicated and determined to create sustainable options for future generations.

* * *

This year, we have given our “toilet tour” and foundational scientific presentation to visitors from as far as Germany, South Africa, China, and Kenya. Students from Yale University, Tufts University, and Hampshire College have visited this summer to learn about completing the nutrient cycle and recycling urine. Local students from Marlboro College and SIT have completed projects with the Rich Earth Institute.

Our collaborating civil and environmental engineers, chemists, and bacteriologists from the University of Michigan and University at Buffalo, along with a documentary film crew, have all traveled to Brattleboro to see our project first-hand.

We are also doing international outreach. I will be going to Kenya in January with William Aludo, a recent graduate of World Learning, to his home village.

When William visited the Institute for a “toilet tour” and learned that urine is a natural, abundant fertilizer, he was radiant with possibility for his people. He reports that many in his village are undernourished and do not have resources to purchase fertilizer to improve crop production. Together, they will initiate a pilot project helping women grow more food in their gardens using urine as fertilizer.

While in Kenya, I will also meet with leaders of the SANERGY project to begin planning a targeted research collaboration. SANERGY works with local entrepreneurs living in impoverished regions of Nairobi to provide sanitation to thousands of people, using toilets that harvest urine for use as fertilizer.

To become more economically viable by producing a better product, the SANERGY project needs access to the urine treatment technologies that the Rich Earth Institute has been developing in Vermont.

* * *

The Institute receives a constant stream of inquiries from people asking for detailed documentation of our project, or for our help starting “pee-cycling” programs in their communities and universities. Right now, we don’t have the human resources to fully respond to most of these requests, but they illustrate the great interest in this topic and the opportunity for leadership.

After three years of building connections, experience, and credibility, it is time for us to add staff to take advantage of the surging industry and academic interest in recycling urine into fertilizer.

As a research institute, our primary product is knowledge and information, and our current federal and industry contracts show there is a market for this product. Once we find funding to hire personnel beyond our minimal startup staff, we are confident that those positions will become self-sustaining through additional research contracts and private partnerships.

The Rich Earth Institute is an unusual organization with entrepreneurial spirit, national connections, and serious community support by an amazing group of courageous and empowered urine donors. Our project might seem ahead of the times, but really it’s just in time — and hopefully not too late.

With 7 billion people growing into 9 billion people in the next 35 years, continuing to use clean drinking water to flush fertilizer down the drain will not suffice. We have to and will make the transition, and it won’t be difficult if we dedicate resources to creating rational, innovative solutions.

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