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The Commons
Photo 1

Wendy M. Levy/The Commons

From left, Rich Earth Institute Board Chair John Hatton, Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany, and Brattleboro Water and Highway Superintendent Hannah Tyler cut the ribbon for a new urine collection depot at the former Estey Organ complex on Birge Street.

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A steady stream of innovation at Rich Earth Institute

New depot is latest advance in nonprofit's effort to turn human urine into fertilizer

To learn more about the Rich Earth Institute, visit richearthinstitute.org. To sign up as a urine donor, contact Urine Nutrient Reclamation Project Coordinator Neil Patel at neil@richearthinstitute.org, or visit the REI booth on Saturdays at the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market.

Originally published in The Commons issue #418 (Wednesday, July 26, 2017). This story appeared on page 0.



BRATTLEBORO—The urine collectors of southeast Windham County have a new place to deposit their contributions. On July 17, the Rich Earth Institute held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open their new urine depot, located in the former Estey Organ Factory complex on Birge Street.

The nonprofit, EPA-funded REI, 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.”

Nace is the organization’s executive director and Noe-Hays serves as the research director.

REI established the first community scale Urine Nutrient Reclamation Project in the country, which now has 100 donors diverting their urine away from septic and wastewater systems and — after pasteurization — onto local farms for use as fertilizer.

Since then, most of the diverted urine has ended up in containers on Nace’s property. Now, donors can bring it to the depot, in a space REI is renting from Barbara George.

“I wanted to get it out of my garage,” Nace said.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, REI staff, board members, and their families greeted about 25 urine donors, public officials, farmers, and members of the press with cookies and pitchers of lemonade [insert joke here].

To cut the ribbon on the new facility, REI Board Chair John Hatton held a giant pair of wooden scissors from the Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re members of the Chamber now!” Nace exclaimed.

More than storage

At Nace’s urging, Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany and Department of Public Works Water and Highway Superintendent Hannah Tyler helped Hatton officially open the doors to the depot. Both were instrumental in helping REI establish it.

The depot is more than a simple collection and storage facility. It also has built-in technology that tests each batch of donated urine for pH levels, and separates it according to whether it’s more acidic or alkaline.

“All urine comes out [of the body] with a low pH, and it gets higher as it ages,” Nace said.

If the pH is high, the urine goes directly to farms for immediate use, according to Nace. If it’s low, REI’s process removes the water from the urine through reverse osmosis, which concentrates low-pH urine “by a factor of five,” and captures the nutrients, Nace said. That water, she said, “can go anywhere,” such as into a wastewater system, but the nitrogen and phosphorus are captured and concentrated for agricultural fertilizer.

“We can do more to” low-pH urine, Nace said. Plus, the concentrated nutrients are easier to store and ship, because they weigh less with all that water removed.

Last year, REI was awarded a National Science Foundation grant of $830,000, disbursed over four years. Some of that money helped the nonprofit conduct research and build the depot’s infrastructure.

A $3,750 grant from the Thomas Thompson Trust allowed REI to build the “smart pump” that sucks up the urine from the donor’s container, and, through sensors connected to a small Arduino computer platform, checks its pH and sends it to the appropriate holding tank.

“It uses C coding, and our intern from Ohio, Sean Jacobs, did the programming,” said Konrad Scheltema, a research associate and board member at REI.

The depot has another new feature: an acetic acid dispenser. After donors use the smart pump to remove the urine from their containers, they add a few ounces of acetic acid — basically, vinegar — to the empty jug and bring it home to fill up again.

Nace explained why someone would want to bring home acetic acid in their urine-collection containers. “It helps keep the pH low, and it reduces odors,” she said.

The system’s computer sensors perform another crucial task for the depot, which lies in the midst of a mixed-use residential and business district: They make sure the four, 275-gallon urine-filled tanks don’t overflow.

“The sensors check the levels in the tanks, and will send out a call for help through wi-fi if they get too full,” Scheltema explained. If that happens, the smart pump will also stop drawing in urine from donors. If that doesn’t work for some reason, the “swimming pool” holding the four tanks will contain any leaks. “There’s a bunch of fail-safes so it doesn’t make a mess,” Scheltema said.

To foil any would-be pee-stealers, there’s a lock with a keypad on the depot’s door. Only donors will get the combination. And, to help confused donors, “there’s lots of signage, and a contact number,” Nace said. “It’ll be pretty self-sufficient,” she added.

Out of the waste stream

“In small communities like ours,” Nace told The Commons earlier this year, “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 noted 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.

“80 percent of the nitrogen in our wastewater comes from human urine,” Scheltema said.

Although Hatton said he was on REI’s Board because he “loves governance,” he had another reason for joining: “For me, it’s about water and the future of the planet.”

According to REI’s website, human beings use 1.2 trillion gallons of drinkable water every year to flush what Hatton described as “a few grams of urine” at a time.

Hatton said Noe-Hays provided him with estimated figures showing “in one year, I didn’t flush 1,200 gallons of water” because he instead diverted his urine. “And that’s just me,” Hatton said, “that doesn’t include my family."

Now that REI has a place for donors to bring their urine that isn’t her garage, “we want to double our urine this year, and triple it in the future,” Nace said.

But, Nace told attendees at the ribbon-cutting, the depot is a somewhat temporary measure, to support the institute’s continuing research.

“The research needs a significant amount of urine, and this is how we collect it now,” she said.

One of the institute’s goals is to establish infrastructure to streamline the collection process, likely by sending septic company trucks to pick up diverted urine. “It’s already happening at 20 households around the county,” Nace said.

Those participants store their urine in 55-gallon barrels and, twice a year, Best Septic sends trucks to collect it.

The recent permit REI got from the state Agency of Natural Resources allows the organization to operate a portable pasteurization unit, which will allow REI staff to drive the unit to any farm in the state, collect their set-aside urine, pasteurize it, and then apply it to the fields, Scheltema said. “The state has been incredibly supportive,” he said.

Although much has been made of the “ick factor” of collecting urine — and a large portion of the NSF grant is for social research on that topic — Scheltema said he’s confident the culture can change to incorporate the practice.

And it’s not like urine diversion is such a radical concept.

“In Europe, urine diversion is more popular, and the infrastructure is there,” he said.

“I tell people we’re funded by three very ‘fringe’ organizations,” Scheltema said. “The EPA, the USDA, and the NSF.”

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