Published On: Mon, Jun 20th, 2022

Peecycling? It’s a No. 1 Idea to Help Farmers Fertilize. No Sh-t!

Farmer in Dummerston, Vt., tows applicator filled with pasteurized urine. 
Credit: John Tully for          The New York Times

A shortage of chemical fertilizer, worsened by the war in Ukraine, is making growers desperate.  Some are finding something that has the very nutrients crops need, but has a repulsive name.

So, let’s reduce the ick or yuck factors by calling it “treasurine.” We’ll refer to it as Buried Treasurine in our growing fields instead of using just that smelly word–urine. Top of FormBottom of Form

Catrin Einhorn just wrote a pisser of an article in The New York Times–pisser in the Cambridge English Dictionary sense of “something very good.”   

She wrote it after traveling to Vermont, where she saw many different types of toilets, plus a poster in Brattleboro inviting people to learn about something known as peecycling.

Urine is full of the same nutrients plants need and has a lot more than Number Two, with almost none of the pathogens. Farmers typically apply those nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — to crops in the form of chemical fertilizers. But that comes with a high environmental cost from fossil fuels and mining.

Efforts to tap the growing power of urine have become increasingly urgent after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has worsened a worldwide fertilizer shortage that’s driving farmers to desperation and threatening food supplies.

If we don’t do something about climate change, feeding a growing global population will only get more difficult, warns Peter Ticktin, founder of The Global Warming Foundation and author of “What Makes Trump Tick,” about his longtime pal Donald Trump, now a client of his law firm.  And Peter has a home in Vermont.

Now, some in Vermont feel a pang of regret when they use a regular toilet.  According to one, “We make this amazing fertilizer with our bodies, and then we flush it away with gallons of another precious resource.”

Toilets, in fact, are by far the largest source of water use inside homes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Wiser management could save vast amounts of water, an urgent need as climate change worsens drought in places like the American West.

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. Runoff from chemical fertilizer makes it worse. The result is algal blooms that trigger mass die offs of animals and other plants.

In one dramatic example in the state where I live, Florida’s manatees in the Indian River Lagoon are starving to death after sewage-fueled algal blooms destroyed the sea grass they depend on.

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

Beyond the practical benefits of turning urine into fertilizer, in place of far from sustainable chemical fertilizer, some Einhorn points out are also drawn to a transformative idea behind the endeavor. By reusing something once flushed away, they say, they are taking a revolutionary step toward tackling the biodiversity and climate crises: Moving away from a system that constantly extracts and discards, toward a more circular economy that reuses and recycles in a continuous loop.

Researchers have found that urine, either with animal manure or alone, increased yields of some crops by about 30 percent.  So far, the research on harvesting and packaging the nutrients in urine isn’t advanced enough to solve the current fertilizer crisis. Collecting urine at scale would, for example, require transformative changes to plumbing infrastructure.

Then there’s the ick factor, which peecycling supporters must confront, which they do 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 for research and application on a few 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 by potentially harmful chemicals from industrial sources and households.

Urine is a much better option, she contends.  So, every spring, in the hills around the Rich Earth Institute, a truck with a license plate reading “P4Farms” delivers the pasteurized goods. 

Peecyclers in Vermont describe a personal benefit from their work: A sense of gratification thinking about their own body’s nutrients helping to heal the earth, instead of hurt it.  “Hashtag PeeTheChange,” quipped Julia Cavicchi, who directs education at the Rich Earth Institute.

Einhorn reports on biodiversity for the Climate and Environment desk at the Times. @catrineinhorn

Tom Madden is an author of countless articles, a weekly blog (MaddenMischief.com) and many books, his latest WORDSHINE MAN, available on Amazon. He also creates TV series, one is Xtra Terresla, whose main character is modeled after Tesla founder Leon Musk, soon to own Twitter. Madden is the founder and CEO of TransMedia Group, an award-winning public relations firm.

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