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Seth True, of Best Septic, pumps from a 275 gallon tank. A family of three can fill a tank this size in eight months

Seth True of Best Septic Service pumps urine from a 275-gallon tank for transfer to the farm. A family of three can produce this much urine in eight months.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ABE NOE-HAYS, RICH EARTH INSTITUTE

Samantha Larson

for National Geographic

Published February 2, 2014

The Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont, aims to shift how we think about our own waste. They want to "close the nutrient cycle" by using our urine to grow what we next consume.

Today, most human waste in the U.S. flows down the pipes to a facility such as DC Water's Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest facility of its kind in the world. Blue Plains receives an average of 370 million gallons of wastewater, 94 percent of which is from residential sources in the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland and Virginia. This includes what washes down the kitchen drain, fills up washing machines, and flushes down toilets.

Once at Blue Plains, it all goes through a multistage process in which it is passed from pool to pool of various hues of reddish brown, where the liquid is stirred, bubbled, fed to algae, and filtered until it is clean enough to get dumped back into the Potomac River.

Much of what this process is doing is removing nitrogen and phosphorous, elements that can be pollutants when too much of them get into our rivers and oceans. But they are also essential nutrients for plant growth—and thus, two of the basic components of fertilizer.

Most conventional farms invest in synthetic fertilizer, which requires energy to produce and is associated with many environmental problems of its own. But by separating out human urine before it gets to the wastewater plant, Rich Earth cofounder Kim Nace says they can turn it into a robust fertilizer alternative: a "local, accessible, free, sanitary source of nitrogen and phosphorous."

Since its founding in 2011, the Rich Earth Institute has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and was selected for funding from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for future research and development. Among other projects, the institute is researching methods that "farmers who can't afford to pay for chemical, commercial fertilizers can adopt."

Useful Nutrients

According to the World Health Organization, human urine makes up less than one percent of the domestic wastewater treated at a facility such as Blue Plains, but contains 80 percent of the nitrogen and 55 percent of the phosphorous. When these nutrients get into our rivers and streams, they can cause algal blooms, for the very same reason that they're so great for farmers' fields: because they enable growth.

Photo of people harvesting hay.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BETTY JENEWIN, RICH EARTH INITIATIVE
Board member Konrad Scheltema, with help from his son Oliver, uses a wand applicator to apply a 50-50 mix of sanitized urine and water to a test plot.

With enough nitrogen and phosphorous, algae can grow until they have consumed all of the available oxygen in the area, making it a "dead zone" in which nothing else can survive. This problem led to a provision in the 1972 Clean Water Act that requires wastewater treatment facilities to largely remove these nutrients before the water is released back into our rivers, a process that is both costly and energy intensive.

"If you can keep the urine out of the wastewater, you don't have to waste the resources in removing the urine downstream," Abraham Noe-Hays, Rich Earth's other founder, explains.

Although urine is perfectly sanitary after pasteurization, and effective for agricultural use, many still feel a significant "ick" factor when it comes to using urine to grow food.

"We're all afraid of our own waste," Chris Peot, manager of resource recovery at DC Water, explains. But he thinks that response can be worked around—the necessary paradigm shift is already underway. "This is sort of our new mantra: There's no such thing as waste, only waste of resources," Peot says.

Photo of people harvesting hay.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BETTY JENEWIN, RICH EARTH INITIATIVE
Hay is dried on randomized field trial plots. The 2013 trials showed that urine fertilizer was as effective as synthetic fertilizer.

Peecycling's History

In fact, "peecyling" is a mainstream notion elsewhere in the world. Urine diversion for fertilizer can be documented back to 1867, and the U.S. is just starting to catch on to the trend that has become increasingly popular in countries such as Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands over the last decade or so.

Amsterdam's water utility facility, Waternet, even held public demonstrations in November in which men were encouraged to use public urinals to collect their urine for use in rooftop gardens, in order to publicize their belief in the power of urine.

And it's not just the developed world. Since 2006, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and grantee Sasha Kramer, a soil scientist, has been installing dry composting toilets that convert human waste into useful fertilizer in Haiti. The nonprofit group she cofounded, Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), hopes to address the country's poor sanitation while creating employment and providing fertilizer.

Kramer's simple toilets separate urine and feces, which are covered with dry material to reduce odors. The material is regularly collected and then composted in an eight-month process that kills pathogens (see video).

The Future?

There are currently no plans to utilize urine separation at DC Water, but Peot can see its potential. "There are plenty of facilities in D.C. where we could do urine separation," he says. "Nationals Park—you get [tens of thousands of] people there, all taking a pee. We could do urine separation, and then we don't have to bring it down to the treatment plant and spend money and energy and chemicals to get the phosphorous out."

Hay growing in test strips illustrates the fertilizing power of urine. The green strip in the center received urine fertilizer, while the lighter adjacent strips did not.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ABE NOE-HAYS, RICH EARTH INSTITUTE
Hay growing in test strips illustrates the fertilizing power of urine. The green strip in the center received urine fertilizer while the lighter adjacent strips did not.

However, urine separation at Nationals Park would require substantial infrastructure changes in order to re-plumb, to prevent the urine from mixing with the solids, which are much more likely to carry disease. For now, Rich Earth is working on a smaller scale, collecting urine in jugs from their neighbors and encouraging them to install special urine-diverting toilets in their own homes.

Nace and Noe-Hays have found themselves pleasantly surprised by the positive response they've gotten from urine donors at home in Brattleboro. They managed to collect and recycle 3,000 gallons of urine in 2013, and hope to increase that by 2,000 gallons this next year.

Photo of people sanitizing urine.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIM NACE, RICH EARTH INSTITUTE
To sanitize urine before application, it is either stored for 30 days in a sealed tank in a room-temperature greenhouse (background) or heated for 30 minutes in a solar pasteurizer (foreground).

When it comes to human waste, "all our lives we go to the bathroom and flush these things down, make these thing disappear as much as we can," Noe-Hays says. "To realize that those things are actually good things, when used correctly, is really empowering."

31 comments
Yvonne Bender
Yvonne Bender

anaerobic digestion of pee and poo would be the way for all of us to go. soon.  Its sterile at the end and much more fertiliser than we imagine 

Matty Walter
Matty Walter

In suburbia, many households buy straw bales to decorate their homes in the autumn.  When they're done, they typically put the bales out for curbside collection. I take a few of these to use in my home composters. In the autumn and winter I don't have as much access to greens (manures, grass clippings, garden waste) so I add my own urine to the straw, dead leaves, and wood ash.


The results have been fantastic.  The added nitrogen and, to a lesser degree, phosphorus, have made my garden do very well.


It always struck me as odd that we spend a lot to remove nitrogenous waste, in the form of urine, only to pay to bring nitrogen back, in the form of fertilizer.  Peecycling makes so much sense.

Z. Liu
Z. Liu

Good idea. I had learnt that the urea in human urine is a good fertilizer in secondary school, surprised that nobody is using this endless resource of  environmental friendly fertilizer.

Anna Zander
Anna Zander

So cool. And don't forget Pee-On-Earth Day, June 21. Check it out at peeonearth dot com!

T. Siddique
T. Siddique

Indians drink their own piss to no ill or beneficial effect some will drink cow piss. Sometimes it's used as antiseptic on open wounds or for aches and pains. But since they don't have toilets direct deposit in fields is probably the best use.

Walter Gomez
Walter Gomez

What about the environmental toxins that our body manages to get rid through the urine? Aren´t we recycling them too? Its a great thing but isn´t this a factor to take account of?

David Trees
David Trees

I've used it on my lawn at a ratio or 400mls to 10 litres of water for a year now.
Our lawn is lush, robust and has never smelled at all.

I did not know about any of this sterilisation need before reading this article. I will need to research it a bit more I think. I cannot see how storing it improves it? All things break down over time fairly quickly, so it has to make it weaker perhaps??

I can understand that people have an ick feeling about it. But, once you've see how good it is on gardens and learn how easy it is to use safely, it makes great sense.

For all who are truly concerned about our impact on the environment try it... especially the environmental benefit of up-cycling it rather than creating algal blooms etc.

One person talked about hormones, meds, illnesses etc. If you are on them, don't try it. Please get well soon and then try it. This, if an excuse, is not a reason for folk who are well to not try it. 

I really, really can't see how storing it makes it safer, even with what has been written above. Also heating (not boiling) it would only magnify the smell and also any pathogens, surely?

It's primarily Nitrogen and a little bit of Phosphorus. Our flowers really popped this year and out lasted the first several cold snaps compared to last year. I'm sold even if others are paranoid or stuck in a rut using chemicals. Their right of course, no issue. This is my opinion only and my experience.

Harvey Wharfield
Harvey Wharfield

Hmmm…what about all the foreign chemicals like prescription drugs, hormone treatments, etc. that are in the urine which is then dumped into the ground ? Did they really think this one through ?

Alexandra May
Alexandra May

We have created excellent compost with human waste for several years now at our home with evident benefits in our garden. Composting human feces in a high-temperature thermophilic process (a healthy compost pile) allows human waste to become part of a valuable soil amendment. Flushing it down a toilet and co-mingling it with drinking water- soils drinking water, wastes a significant source of nitrogen and pollutes ground water - this practice is dangerous to humans and our environment. It is a 150 year-old public health solution that is no longer viable. 

Edward Boss
Edward Boss

Human Urine is sterile.  It has to be or you would have a bladder infection.  It is obvious that it has a form of anhydrous ammonia chloride just from the ammonia smell of it.  Fecal matter of humans though is filled with over a 1,000 anaerobic bacteria and diseases which are dangerous to humans because it is from humans.  Not the same as animal manures.  And never used. 

Karen Butler
Karen Butler

We use cow, llama, pig, fowl, bat and worm poo as fertilizers and we balk at utilizing what our bodies produce!  Go figure!  Great article!

Harry Zuberbühler
Harry Zuberbühler

Brilliant! It's always struck me as super dumb to first flush our waste down the toilet by mixing it with lots of drinking water and then build tremendously expensive and energy consuming treatment plants to remove our deluted waste from it - in a sort of successless attempt to bring the water back to anywhere near drinking water quality!? Syngenta and the like will go to great lenghts to discredit that sort of fertilizer.  

Emma Joyston-Bechal
Emma Joyston-Bechal

Brilliant - just making our Humanure toilets for our Morocco Retreats, Eco Sahara Camp - this article is very exciting and we are looking forward to some community projects in the Sahara in the future.

Gabriela K.
Gabriela K.

Interesting. Why not start in a surrounding where lots of people go, like sport stadiums, fun parks and so on.

Praveen Marselin
Praveen Marselin

great idea for the municipalities and panchayats to follow...

Marjie Winters
Marjie Winters

What about run off from the field to streams. Modern fertilizer run off pollutes streams, so if urine is high in nitrogen and phosphorus, won't there still be algae blooms in the water?

George Case
George Case

I don't see how this is "ickier" than using cow poop

Lisa Diessel
Lisa Diessel

Pee collection?  The neighbours want to know if "urine".

Dave Simmons
Dave Simmons

Also see The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins, first published in 1995.

Just search for "humanure".

Jonas Spector
Jonas Spector

What about drugs in urine, persciption or otherwise, birth control, heart meds, etc. How do they affect what is grown, are they removed from the urine?

Raymond Bacon
Raymond Bacon

@Walter Gomez If the urine is diluted with water and cycled through a hot composting process, environmental pollutants like ddt, biocides, pharma residues etc. get destroyed. I don't know which ones are considered water soluble but with enough bacterial action, there's no problem. 


www.oursacredseeds.com


PS. I'll be posting a video on this process later this week.

Ilya Pittel
Ilya Pittel

@David Trees  I'm a Phd Biologist, i just wanted to answer a couple of your concerns. 


Regarding the Nitrogen and Phosphorus, they are both basic building blocks in nature and can't "break down over time" also Boiling the pee would sterilize it and also break down the chemicals and toxins (depending which) ones contained within. 


Sterilization would make it more safe for storage/transport ect. 


You are correct, boiling pee would probably smell nasty tho ;-) 

Don Strong
Don Strong

@Edward Boss  Human urine is sterile unless it is not. Diseases of the urinary tract, a few parasites, and microbes that enter urine when it leaves the body and where it is stored. Urine sterilization is essential to this program.

  Human feces has long been used as manure and still is in some regions of the world. Google "night soil."

Ethan Nielsen
Ethan Nielsen

@Harry Zuberbühler  While I agree with the "waste of our waste" in your comment, I think it is jumping to conclusions that Syngenta would discredit it and find it illogical to make that assumption. What would cause you to draw this conclusion? Who is "and the like"? It seems to me you've taken a neutral story and are attempting to use it to assert a position against a corporation for some reason you don't agree with.

Isabella Chowra
Isabella Chowra

@Marjie Winters  That's not only a problem with "modern" fertilizers, it will always be a problem no matter the source. The key is in the usage, to not use more at a time than the plants can absorb, not before heavy rains etc. 

Troy Eilertson
Troy Eilertson

@Jonas Spector  Better that they are processed by the plants and soil microbes than recycled into our drinking water as they are now.

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