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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.”
She had to work the evening of the information session, so she sent her husband, Jon Sellers, to assuage her curiosity. He came home with a jug and funnel.
Human urine, Mr. Sellers learned that night seven years ago, is full of the same nutrients that plants need to flourish. It has a lot more, in fact, 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.
The local nonprofit group that ran the session, the Rich Earth Institute, was working on a more sustainable approach: Plants feed us, we feed them.
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Efforts like these are increasingly urgent, experts say. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has worsened a worldwide fertilizer shortage that’s driving farmers to desperation and threatening food supplies. Scientists also warn that feeding a growing global population in a world of climate change will only get more difficult.
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.
Kate Lucy and Jon Sellers at home with their children. At first, collecting urine was “a little sloshy,” Ms. Lucy said.Credit…John Tully for The New York Times
Arthur Davis, a researcher and program director at the Rich Earth Institute, prepared a urine collection truck for its rounds in May.Credit…John Tully for The New York Times
Now, Ms. Lucy feels a pang of regret when she uses a regular toilet. “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.”
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, manatees in the Indian River Lagoon in Florida 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,” said Rebecca Nelson, a professor of plant science and global development at Cornell University.
Beyond the practical benefits of turning urine into fertilizer, some 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.
Chemical fertilizer is far from sustainable. The commercial production of ammonia, which is mainly used for fertilizer, uses fossil fuels in two ways. First, as the source of hydrogen, which is needed for the chemical process that converts nitrogen from the air into ammonia, and second as fuel to generate the intense heat required. By one estimate, ammonia manufacturing contributes 1 to 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Phosphorus, another key nutrient, is mined from rock, with an ever dwindling supply.
Across the Atlantic, in rural Niger, another study of urine fertilization was designed to address a more local problem: How could female farmers increase poor crop yields? Often relegated to the fields farthest from town, the women struggled to find or transport enough animal manure to replenish their soils. Chemical fertilizer was far 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 consulted with medical doctors and religious leaders about whether it would be OK to try fertilizing with urine, and got a green light.
“So we said, let us test that hypothesis,” Mr. Ali recalled.
It took some convincing, but the first year, 2013, they had 27 volunteers who collected urine in jugs and applied it to plants along with animal manure; no one was willing to risk their harvest on pee alone.
A program in southern Niger began as a way to help female farmers who could not afford chemical fertilizer.Credit…Will Miller/McKnight Collaborative Crop Research Program
Researchers found that urine, either with animal manure or alone, increased yields of some crops by about 30 percent.Credit…Will Miller/McKnight Collaborative Crop Research Program
“The results we got were very fantastic,” Mr. Ali said. The next year, about 100 more women were fertilizing with it, then 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. That could mean more food for a family, or the ability to sell their surplus at market and get cash for other necessities.