Executive Director Kim Nace, left, and Research Associate Neil Patel hang their sign at the Rich Earth Institute's new main facility on Old Ferry Road in Brattleboro.
Originally published in The Commons issue #392 (Wednesday, January 25, 2017). This story appeared on page A3.
BRATTLEBORO—The Windham Solid Waste Management District’s Old Ferry Road facility welcomed a new tenant in the final days of 2016.
The day after Christmas, staff of the Rich Earth Institute began moving desks and computers into the offices of the former Carbon Harvest building, located near the Swap Shop and the giant compost piles.
The nonprofit, EPA-funded, Rich Earth Institute, co-founded in 2012 by Kim Nace and Abe Noe-Hays, “engages in research, education, and technological innovation to advance the use of human waste as a resource in order to conserve water, prevent pollution, and sustain soil fertility,” according to the Institute’s website.
Nace is the organization’s executive director and Noe-Hays serves as the research director.
The Institute uses collected human urine as a fertilizer for local farms.
“Depending on the crops fertilized, a sanitization step may be advisable,” says the Institute’s website, noting, “Urine contains most of the plant nutrients found in human waste. Separation of urine at the source keeps these nutrients from causing water pollution and allows them to be used as an agricultural resource.”
About 100 individuals submit their collected urine to Rich Earth, but Nace said the number fluctuates depending on whether people move in or out of the area or are on vacation.
“We’re mostly fertilizing hay right now,” Nace said, “but our research includes fertilizing edible crops.”
After Carbon Harvest’s plan to build a sustainable energy system failed in 2013, the WSWMD sought a new tenant to occupy their spot.
Sky Solar, a Hong Kong-based company planning to install a solar array on the capped landfill, will soon occupy a portion of the 7,000 square foot building vacated by Carbon Harvest. Sky Solar has sub-leased 2,000 square feet to Rich Earth Institute, according to information WSWMD Executive Director Bob Spencer shared at the Dec. 8 District Board of Supervisors meeting.
At the meeting, Spencer noted the Rich Earth Institute’s mission of recycling human waste fits in with the District’s ethos. “It’s sort of what we do here,” Spencer said.
“We’ve been looking at this building, talking to Bob Spencer about it, for a long time. Our work is a waste-management thing,” Nace said, noting the institute’s directors wanted to find a site for the institute near “industrial organic recycling,” such as a compost facility.
By signing people up to collect their urine — about 5,000 gallons per year, so far — rather than flushing it down the toilet, the institute removes what Nace estimated as 540 pounds of nitrogen and 65 pounds of phosphorus per year from the water stream. It also provides the institute with raw material — human urine — for experiments and for pasteurizing into agricultural fertilizer.
“For the last two years we’ve done a ‘piss off’ contest,” Nace said, explaining that adding a competitive element is one of the ways the institute gets locals excited about diverting urine from the wastewater stream. “We have some extremely dedicated participants,” Nace said.
“It’s an amazing indication of how passionate people are,” she said. “They’re fighting to win this award!”
Nace said the winners will be announced soon.
The Institute’s staff will build urine processing and pasteurizing equipment, and install a research lab, in the former Carbon Harvest building, Nace said.
Since the Institute’s inception in 2012, its work has been spread out across southeastern Windham County. Administrative, planning, and technical work happened in Nace’s home, at local farms — and “below Abe’s apartment,” according to Nace.
Rich Earth’s move to the District’s campus allows them to consolidate their facilities.
“We can have a lab and an office here, and this building will also be a demonstration space. We can all be there instead of at Kim’s and Abe’s houses. This building fits our needs,” said Assistant Administrator Phoebe Gooding.
“We’re developing from scratch new technologies to create urine-derived output,” Nace said, explaining “it’s an end-product that can be odorless, or in granular form, or concentrated."
“Many farms are interested in what we do. We have more demand than supply,” she said.
Some of the institute’s plans in the next year include increasing urine-collection efforts, including “more local people installing new toilets” to achieve that, Nace said.
“The status quo of what we do with human waste is water-centric and unsustainable,” Nace said, noting that even with Brattleboro’s improved wastewater treatment plant, “our wastewater plan is not good.”
“In small communities like ours, we don’t have the tax base to build infrastructure” like they have in big cities, where “they can implement nutrient renewal” from human waste, Nace said, noting the EPA recently implemented new standards for the release of nitrogen and phosphorus into waterways.
“Our treatment plants discharge” those pollutants into our streams and rivers, she said.
“It’s too bad they put poop and pee in the water in the first place. They could divert it into composting toilets. Human waste discharge pollutes our rivers,” she said.
Occupying this space will also allow the institute to host local, national, and international visitors. “It increases our credibility, having this space. We are attracting attention from further afield,” Nace said.
Some of the institute’s work will continue on in far-flung locales, Nace said. But that’s by design.
Last September, the institute won an $840,000 grant, in partnership with the University of Michigan, from the National Science Foundation.
“As part of an interdisciplinary team led by Nancy Love and Krista Wigginton at the University of Michigan, the Institute will develop and test an array of urine treatment and processing methods. The goal is to determine the most effective, economical, and energy-efficient methods for transforming urine into a safe, practical, and aesthetically pleasing alternative to synthetic fertilizer,” says the institute’s news release.
Other project partners include the University of Buffalo, New Water ReSources Inc., and Hampton Roads Sanitation District.
Nace credits much of the institute’s success with university partnerships to her colleagues, especially Noe-Hays. “We can speak their language,” she said.
“Abe has high-level scientific and math skills. He’s self-taught, a tinkerer, inventor, and he’s practical and pragmatic,” Nace said, noting, “he understands how all the disciplines intersect.”
The NSF grant, and private foundation money, “expands our production,” said Nace, and allowed the institute to hire six part-time staff members. “We’re still working to raise more funds” to meet the goal of raising the staff salaries to full-time, Nace said.
“We have enough work to do. We can grow and expand in many ways, but we need funding,” Nace said.
Nace said the institute’s goal is to have the new facility set up in March or April, “just in time for the next growing season.”
“When the snow is gone and the green things start to appear,” Nace said, “we will be here with our urine.”
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