Luskin: Liquid Gold

May 28, 2013

Every year, sweepers in costumes follow the cows that march in the Strolling of the Heifers parade through Brattleboro. The sweepers, of course, are there to shovel up any manure the cows drop along the route.

Manure is rich in nutrients and a valuable soil-builder, prized by organic farmers and gardeners alike.

But cow manure is not the only nutrient-rich waste product that will be collected at this year’s parade and agricultural fair. This year, the Rich Earth Institute will be collecting human urine as well.

It turns out that we humans produce about eight pounds of nitrogen and almost one pound of phosphorous in our urine each year – that's potential fertilizer - enough to grow about 400 pounds of food per person, or enough to provide 1,800 calories daily per person per year.

The benefits of urine reclamation to improve poor soil and increase food production are obvious. What are less obvious are the substantial benefits that such practices can have in reducing wastewater and water pollution.

Americans average five flushes a day. Four dispose only urine. On a yearly basis, that translates to over four thousand gallons of clean water to transport nitrogen-rich urine into the sewer, where it becomes pollution. Nitrogen and phosphorous are necessary to grow crops, but they change the ecology of our waterways, significantly degrading the environment.

Residues from the pharmaceuticals we all swallow also pollute the water we flush, but these drugs biodegrade when added to the filtering ecosystem of soil. Some plants may still absorb traces of these drugs, and the Rich Earth Institute plans to test for drug residues in rigorous, scientific, field trials. They also plan to test methods of removing these elements from urine before it is used as a fertilizer.

Generally, however, urine is sterile. The diseases associated with human waste are carried in the fecal matter. Nevertheless, the Rich Earth Institute sanitizes the urine they collect. Last year, they tested two sanitizing methods: solar pasteurization and long-term storage, both successful. In fact, the institute’s field trials were so successful last year, that this year they've been awarded a grant from the US Department of Agriculture to expand the field tests.

Even though the practice of collecting urine for agricultural use has been practiced in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa for years, it’s almost unheard of in the US. In fact, the Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro is conducting the first American field trial.

But these field trials depend on being able to collect enough urine. Last year, sixty people donated the 600 gallons of urine used in the first trials. This year, The Rich Earth Institute needs 3,000 gallons by July fifteenth. So, with the help of Best Septic Service out of Westminster, they will be collecting urine at two specially marked port-a-potties at the Strolling of the Heifers this year.

I’ll be attending the parade, and I’ll be sure to make my deposit of liquid gold.