Recycling’s last frontier
Rich Earth Institute’s urine recycling depot at the Rockingham/Westminster Recycling Center.

Recycling’s last frontier

The Rich Earth Institute gains big grants and international attention for its efforts to turn human waste into fertilizer as local collection efforts extend to the Bellows Falls region

A few months ago, the Rich Earth Institute opened a new urine recycling depot at the Rockingham/Westminster Recycling Center on Route 5 in Westminster, only the latest in the nonprofit organization's cutting-edge program focused on reusing human waste as fertilizer.

As human population grows, how to handle increasing human waste is a big problem, and the Rich Earth Project, based in Brattleboro for over a decade, has garnered international attention as nations around the globe wrestle with this issue.

As part of its ongoing educational efforts, Rich Earth's three-day virtual seminar from Nov. 1 to Nov. 3 discussed the latest developments on human waste recycling. It drew participants from every continent except Antarctica.

The Rich Earth Institute has pulled together a national collaboration of scientists, farmers, engineers, educators, business people, and community leaders to deal head-on with the issue: Will humans change the way we deal with human waste and turn it into an important source for growing nutrient-rich food, or will we continue to dump waste into our water sources and keep paying serious environmental consequences?

To this end, the organization has created the Urine Nutrient Reclamation Project, the first of its kind, community-sized, fully permitted, urine-to-fertilizer program.

Since 2012, the Rich Earth Institute has involved Brattleboro-area residents in its pilot urine recycling project headquartered at 355 Old Ferry Rd., and in April, Rich Earth opened the new urine collection depot in Westminster.

“These are permitted installations,” said Arthur Davis, who directs the project. “The town of Rockingham was really supportive and helpful in this process, helping us get set up.”

“We provide portable 2.5 or 5 gallon urine collection containers, and people can bring those to our depots and pump them out,” Davis said. “In addition, some facilities have urine-only toilets or urine diverting toilets. We come and pump those tanks.”

While the larger on-site urine collection technologies are likely the wave of the future, the less-convenient depot drop-offs have been very important.

“The depot method is a way to get involved,” said Davis. “The cost barrier is very low, and people can get out of the program at any time. Many people in Brattleboro use this process.”

Davis said they expect the Rockingham depot to see increased use as people become more aware of the program.

Human waste wasted

Modern science confirms that human feces contains important and reusable organic matter and nutrients, and human urine is particularly rich in nutrients that are vital for plants, including nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, and sulfur.

Urine, in addition to containing more - and more valuable - nutrients than feces, is also generally free of pathogens and is easily sanitized and its storage and transportation is less of an issue.

Discarding and using human feces and urine has been a factor of everyday life for thousands of years. For most of that time, humankind has used human, bird, and animal waste as valuable fertilizers and manufacturing commodities for farmers and industries.

Outhouses were constructed with an entryway at the back that could be opened, allowing for someone to remove the human waste periodically. From there it could be disposed of elsewhere, including to help fertilize gardens and fields.

But, at the same time, it wasn't uncommon for outhouses to stand directly over a stream, or for waste to be dumped in flowing waterways to dispose of it. Putting human waste directly into water supplies creates some serious health and pollution issues.

The dominant modern practice has been to treat wastewater in treatment plants and then introduce the byproduct into nearby bodies of water. In Vermont this has included Lake Champlain, the Connecticut River, and various other rivers and streams.

Modern plants are designed to treat the wastewater before it is discharged, but the discharge will still retain the fertilizing nutrients, and wastewater may also include endocrine disruptors and pharmaceuticals.

In towns that still use water treatment plants which combine sewer overflow and storm overflow in the same discharge pipes, a heavy rainfall can so tax the discharge system that treated wastewater, rainfall, and raw sewage are combined and discharged together directly into rivers and other water bodies.

“Wherever urine ends up, it is fertilizing plant growth,” said Davis. “On the land that can be crops, but in water it fertilizes algae. Most sewage treatment plants just get rid of the pathogens but not the remaining nutrients.”

Algae growth due to urine in rivers, streams, and lakes is a direct threat to humans and to all forms of aquatic life, including fish and plants. Algae creates toxins that can make humans, their pets, livestock, and other animals seriously sick if they drink, swim in, or eat fish or shellfish from, infected water sources. The toxins can even be life-threatening.

“Long Island Sound has huge nitrogen loading issues,” Davis said. In fact, Rich Earth receives funding for its work from the Long Island Sound Futures Fund in addition to support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Rich Earth's recycling process

Once Rich Earth collects the urine, it is brought to a pump depot at the Windham Solid Waste Management District site.

“There we pasteurize it,” said Julia Cavicchi, education director for Rich Earth. “It's a process that requires time and temperature.”

“In the end we meet all required standards,” she added. “At that point it is classed as a Class A exceptional quality product.”

“Then we bring it to the farms,” Cavicchi said. “We've worked with five to 10 different properties over the years.” Those agricultural participants are all local.

Cavicchi said that the reclaimed urine is especially good for fertilizing hay, which is primarily a nitrogen-hungry crop. Urine has also been used worldwide to fertilize sweet corn, hemp, flowers, figs, lettuce, carrots, and other crops.

“You want to use the right amount of nutrients for any crop,” Davis said. “There are no restrictions on what crops it can be used on.”

In the U.S., recycling urine in this way could replace up to 9 billion pounds of chemical fertilizer a year, save 4,000 gallons of water per person, and dramatically reduce fertilizer costs - and, at the same time, cut water pollution.

Urine recycling can also save some of the 1.2 trillion gallons of drinkable water people in the U.S. use each year to flush their toilets.

“We currently have over 200 local urine donors in Brattleboro,” Cavicchi said. “Last year, we collected and pasteurized 12,108 gallons of urine, resulting in 377,770 gallons of water conserved (prevented from being flushed).”

Since the Rich Earth Institute's founding in 2012, its work has resulted in 72,506 gallons of urine reclaimed as fertilizer and 2,262,187 gallons of water conserved, Cavicchi added.

Research and study

In addition to its educational and recycling programs, Rich Earth is also a center for research on urine recycling.

“We've pulled researchers together since we started,” Cavicchi said. “It started with a few people in a room. The last three years we've done it virtually and have had over 200 folks participating.”

According to Cavicchi, this year's conference offered presentations on all the steps involved in reclaiming and reusing human waste. It gave participants insight on the latest toilet technologies and on methods of processing waste.

Since urine is 95% water, methods of removing some of that water and creating concentrated products can potentially be helpful to the Earth. Cavicchi said the conference analyzed those advantages, among other environmental benefits.

Davis said that the project brings in a diverse group of experts, including social scientists, chemical engineers, university researchers, and more. One interdisciplinary project combines hard science and the study of behavioral patterns.

While Rich Earth is the only group in the United States working with urine recycling on a large scale, Cavicchi said many similar projects are ongoing throughout Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia.

Rich Earth also works closely with researchers at several U.S. colleges and universities, including the University of Michigan, Arizona State, Clemson, Stanford, and others.

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