Climate

Meet the Peecyclers. Their Idea to Help Farmers Is No. 1.

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — When Kate Lucy saw a poster in town inviting people to learn about something known as peecycling, she was mystified. “Why would someone pee in a jug and save it?” she wondered. “It sounds like such a wacky idea.”

Jon Sellers, her husband was available to help her as she had to work the night of the information session. He returned with a funnel, jug, and other items.

Human urine, Mr. Sellers discovered seven years ago that urine is rich in nutrients that plants need. It actually has more nutrients that Number Two, and almost none of the pathogens. Farmers typically apply those nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — to crops in the form of chemical fertilizers. However, this comes at a high environmental cost due to fossil fuels and mining.

Rich Earth Institute, a local nonprofit, ran the session. They were working on a more sustainable approach. Plants feed us, they feed us.

Experts agree that such urgent actions are becoming more urgent. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has worsened a worldwide fertilizer shortage that’s driving farmers to desperation and threatening food supplies. Scientists warn that it will be increasingly difficult to feed a growing global populace in a world with climate change.

Now, more than a thousand gallons of donated urine later, Ms. Lucy and her husband are part of a global movement that seeks to address a slew of challenges — including food security, water scarcity and inadequate sanitation — by not wasting our waste.

At first, collecting their urine in a jug was “a little sloshy,” Ms. Lucy said. But she was a nurse and he was a preschool teacher; pee didn’t scare them. They went from dropping off a couple of containers every week or so at an organizer’s home to installing large tanks at their own house that get professionally pumped out.

Ms. Lucy now feels a pang in her stomach when she uses regular toilets. “We make this amazing fertilizer with our bodies, and then we flush it away with gallons of another precious resource,” Ms. Lucy said. “That’s really wild to think about.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, toilets are the biggest source of water usage in homes. Smarter management could save huge amounts of water, which is an urgent need given the increasing drought in areas like the American West due to climate change.

It could also help with another profound problem: Inadequate sanitation systems — including leaky septic tanks and aging wastewater infrastructure — overload rivers, lakes and coastal waters with nutrients from urine. It’s made worse by runoff of chemical fertilizer. Algal blooms are the result, which can cause mass deaths of animals and plants.

One example: Manatees in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon are dying of starvation after sewage-fueled algal blooms decimated the sea grass they rely on.

“The urban environments and aquatic environments become hideously polluted while the rural environments are depleted of what they need,” saidRebecca Nelson is a Cornell University professor of plant science, global development.

Some are attracted to the transformative idea behind turning urine into fertiliser, in addition to the practical benefits. They say that by reusing something that was once flushed away they are taking a radical step towards tackling biodiversity and climate crisis.

Chemical fertilizer is not sustainable. The two main ways fossil fuels are used to produce ammonia for commercial use, which is mainly used in fertilizer production, are: The first is to provide hydrogen, which can be used in the chemical process to convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia. The second is to provide heat for the intense heating required. According to one estimate, ammonia manufacturing accounts for 1 to 2 percent global carbon dioxide emissions. Phosphorus is another important nutrient and is mined from rocks with a diminishing supply.

Another study of urine fertilization was conducted in Niger, across the Atlantic. It was intended to address a local problem: How can female farmers increase their poor crop yields. Women often found themselves in the most remote areas of the farm, where they struggled to transport enough animal manure or find it. Chemical fertilizer was much too expensive.

A team including Aminou Ali, director of the Federation of Maradi Farmers’ Unions in south-central Niger, guessed that the comparatively fertile fields closer to people’s homes were getting a boost from people relieving themselves outside. They sought advice from religious leaders and medical doctors about fertilizing with urine.

“So we said, let us test that hypothesis,” Mr. Ali recalled.

It took some convincing before they were able to get 27 volunteers to collect urine and apply it to plants.

“The results we got were very fantastic,” Mr. Ali said. The next year, it was used by around 100 more women to fertilize, and eventually, it was used in excess by 1,000. His team’s research ultimately found that urine, either with animal manure or alone, increased yields of pearl millet, the staple crop, by about 30 percent. This could result in more food for the family or the ability to sell surplus at market and earn cash for other necessities.

It was taboo for some women to use the word urine, so they renamed it oga, which means “boss” in the Igbo language.

Pasteurizing the pee requires that it be kept in the jug at least for two months before it is used by the farmer, plant by plant. The urine is used at full strength if the ground is wet, or, if it’s dry, diluted 1:1 with water so the nutrients don’t burn the crops. To reduce the smell, masks and scarves are recommended.

The men were initially skeptical. saidHannatou Moussa is an agronomist, who works with Mr. Ali. The results were clear and men began saving their urine soon after.

“It’s become now a competition in the house,” Dr. Moussa saidEach parent trying to persuade children to use their containers, vying for more urine. She explained that some children have begun to demand candy or money in exchange for their services.

The kids aren’t the only ones who see economic potential. Mr. Ali, an entrepreneur young farmer, has taken to collecting, storing, and selling urine. saidThe price of 25 liters of water has increased from $1 to $6 in the last two years.

“You can go pick up your urine like you’re picking up a gallon of water or a gallon of fuel,” Mr. Ali said.

So far, the research on harvesting and packaging the nutrients in urine isn’t advanced enough to solve the current fertilizer crisis. To collect urine at scale, it would require significant changes to the plumbing infrastructure.

Then there’s the ick factor, which peecycling supporters confront head on.

“Human waste is already being used to fertilize foods you find in the grocery store,” said Kim Nace, a co-founder of the Rich Earth Institute, which collects the urine of some 200 volunteers in Vermont, including Ms. Lucy’s, for research and application on a handful of local farms.

The stuff being used already is treated leftovers from wastewater plants, known as biosolids, which contain only a fraction of urine’s nutrients. It can also be contaminated with potentially harmful chemicals from industrial sources or households.

Ms. Nace stated that urine is a better option than urine.

So, every spring, in the hills around the Rich Earth Institute, a truck with a license plate reading “P4Farms” delivers the pasteurized goods.

“We see very strong results from the urine,” saidNoah Hoskins applies it to the hayfields of Bunker Farm, Dummerston, where Noah raises cows. Pigs, chickens, and turkeys. He saidHe wished that the Rich Earth Institute had more pee. “We’re in a moment where chemical fertilizer has more than doubled in price and is really representing a part of our system that is way out of our control.”

One of the biggest problems, though, is that it doesn’t make environmental or economic sense to truck urine, which is mostly water, from cities to distant farmlands.

The Rich Earth Institute has teamed up with the University of Michigan to create a pee concentrate that is sanitized. And at Cornell, inspired by the efforts in Niger, Dr. Nelson and colleagues are trying to bind urine’s nutrients onto biochar, a kind of charcoal, made, in this case, from feces. (It’s important to not to forget about the poop, Dr. Nelson noted, because it contributes carbon, another important part of healthy soil, along with smaller amounts of phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen.)

Similar experiments and pilot programs are ongoing around the world. In Cape Town, South Africa, scientists are finding new ways to harvest urine’s nutrients and reuse the rest. In Paris, officials plan to install pee-diverting toilets in 600 new apartments, treat the urine and use it for the city’s tree nurseries and green spaces.

Karthish Manthiram is a professor of chemical engineering and chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. saidHe was eager to see the results of his efforts. His lab is currently working to develop a process to produce nitrogen from the atmosphere. “These are all methods that need to be pursued because it’s too early right now to tell what’s going to win out,” Dr. Manthiram said.

He feels certain of what is true. saidBecause they are unsustainable, the current methods of acquiring fertilizer must be replaced.

Peecyclers in Vermont describe a personal benefit from their work: A sense of gratification thinking about their own body’s nutrients helping to heal, instead of hurt, the earth.

“Hashtag PeeTheChange,” quipped Julia Cavicchi, who directs education at the Rich Earth Institute. “Puns aren’t the only reason I’m in this field,” she added, “but it’s definitely a perk.”

Source: NY Times