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Closing the cycle

Rich Earth Institute breaks ground with first-ever U.S. field trial using human urine as a fertilizer

BRATTLEBORO—As morning light drew across Still Wind Farm on a late summer day, a group of Brattleboro community members set about marking a grid in the hay field, gathering soil samples, and preparing for the day’s unusual labor: dispersing hundreds of gallons of sanitized human urine on the field to assess its effectiveness as a fertilizer.

Rich Earth Institute, a Brattleboro-based nonprofit incorporated in March 2012, lead the initiative. The group is committed to advancing “the use of human manure as a resource, in order to improve water quality, food security, energy use, and soil health,” according to its website,

This test was the first state-approved application of urine performed in the United States.

Founding members Kim Nace and Abe Noe-Hays explained their ground-breaking efforts in researching the productivity of human urine as a part of closing the “food nutrient cycle,” or more simply, returning the nutrients that we get from the food we eat back to the plant matter of tomorrow, instead of putting it in clean water where it becomes a pollutant.

On this subject, both Nace and Noe-Hays quote Buckminster Fuller: “Pollution is nothing but resources we’re not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we are ignorant of their value.”

For urine, though, those days of ignorance are over.

According to Nace, urine is a complete fertilzer, meaning it contains all of the nutrients required to foster plant growth and build soil quality.

Noe-Hays added, “Instead of mixing urine into our drinking water and flushing it down the toilet, our vision is that we keep them separate – that we collect the urine in its pure form and then take it to where those fertilizers are actually needed.”

Equally important, he stressed, is the notion that “one day’s worth of one person’s urine will fertilize about one square yard of agricultural land for one crop cycle.”

So, he added, “the urine you produce in a year can be enough to produce the food you would need for most of that year.”

This would be the ideal “closed cycle,” where fossil fuel-based chemical fertilizers would be less prolific and the burden on energy-intensive water treatment plants would be lightened.

“The thing that’s changing is energy – energy availability and energy cost,” said Noe-Hays. “It takes a lot of energy to make fertilizer, and it takes a lot of energy to clean up wastewaster. By recycling, we bring the circle together and eliminate both of those energy wastes.”

“In Germany, Sweden, and in a lot of other parts of the world people are reusing urine in agriculture already,” added Nace. “Our country is a little bit behind.”

Government backing

There has been however, a lot of support for this project coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other American scientists.

“We found researchers who were excited to work with us,” said Noe-Hays. “EPA researchers, then other folks, really wanted to use our data because no one else in the country is doing this.”

And, as this scientific community was gathering to be a part of this effort, so too were members of the Brattleboro community coming together to help move this project along, though in a more personal way.

Having proven time and again their interest in progressive ideas, many Vermonters from the Brattleboro area joined the effort by helping to produce and collect 600 gallons of urine, proving that there is a place in the United States where the request, perhaps seen as bizarre by some, would not go unanswered.

“We got 60 volunteers right away who said, ‘Sure, I’d love to collect my urine and give it to your project,’” said Noe-Hays with a smile on his face.

“We’ve been really amazed and excited by the response we’ve gotten,” added Nace. “People are just so enthusiastic.”

But beyond enthusiasm, Noe-Hays describes an unforeseen sense of empowerment.

“They’ve been used to their whole lives thinking of their urine as a little gross and not useful for anything,” he said, “and now [they’re] in a position where someone wants their urine and they’re learning how productive it can be.”

As he watched volunteers gather soil samples on the farm, Noe-Hays noted, “the thing that clicks is that there’s so many things we feel bad about doing – driving our cars, using plastic bags – but with this, every time people go to the bathroom, they feel good about themselves.”

When asked where the Rich Earth Institute was headed in the coming years, Nace said, “We’re hoping to be chosen for this grant with a group of others to do a two-year [study] on really quantifying pharmaceutical residuals in urine.”

The body offloads the majority of pharmaceuticals and hormones through its urine, which is a growing concern as our current water treatment facilities do little to break down these additives and, instead, simply send them into bodies of water, where they can wreak havoc on the animal populations living there.

Part of this work will be to see how these pharmaceuticals break down in a soil ecosystem, perhaps one day providing an alternative to our current wastewater management systems.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #165 (Wednesday, August 15, 2012).

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