VPR News
5:45 pm
Fri July 4, 2014

Brattleboro Research Group Helps Scientists Study Human Urine As Fertilizer

A Vermont nonprofit that’s experimenting with the use of human urine as a fertilizer has attracted the interest of the scientific community. Rich Earth Institute has begun a field trial in partnerships with two major universities and the Environmental Protection Agency.

On a farm in Westminster Abe Noe-Hays has begun a two-year test. With a backhoe and a dozen volunteers, he’s burying 20 plastic 55 gallon drums in a long trench.  The barrels are measuring devices called lysimeters. They’re used to study the movement of water through soil.  Scientists say millions of pounds of chemicals that are flushed away in urine are turning up in aquatic life. Many fear the drug residues are also harming people.

Noe-Hays wants to find out what happens to the pharmaceuticals normally found in urine when it’s used as a fertilizer.

"We're looking at caffeine, ibuprofen, some antibiotics -- the kinds of pharmaceuticals that sewer plants usually discharge into waterways," Noe-Hays says. 

Scientists say millions of pounds of chemicals that are flushed away in urine are turning up in aquatic life. Many fear the drug residues are also harming people.

Scientists say millions of pounds of chemicals that are flushed away in urine are turning up in aquatic life. Many fear the drug residues are also harming people.

Noe-Hays founded the nonprofit Rich Earth Institute in 2012 with Kim Nace, the group’s administrative director.  Nace says Rich Earth hopes to demonstrate that urine is a resource, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus and other nutrients, that could be nourishing crops instead of polluting waterways.

"Part of the theory is that when you use urine as fertilizer the microbes in the soil will help to break down a lot of those chemicals," Nace says.

The group has tested urine fertilizer on hay fields. Now it’s working on a study with the University of Michigan and the University of Buffalo. The project is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We want to find out, if we use urine as a fertilizer and we use it on crops that we’re going to eat, is it safe? Nace explains. "And what happens to those chemicals?"

Volunteers fill the plastic barrels in the trench with the soil that’s been dug up by the backhoe. When the barrels are filled, they’ll plant vegetables and water them with urine fertilizer. The vegetables will be analyzed in a lab, along with the water that’s leached through the dirt to the bottom of the barrel.

Rich Earth gets its urine from a pool of about 170 donors in the Brattleboro area.

Nace says returning the nutrients in human waste to the soil is part of a natural cycle that’s been broken in modern times.

"And what’s fascinating and surprising is that we are the first permitted pilot project in the U.S. that’s doing this," she says. "They’re doing this in Sweden and Germany and other places. But in the United States we’re the first ones to do this on a community scale."

Nace says getting the community involved is important. It’s what you’ve got to do, she says, if you want to change the paradigm.