By Carol Steinfeld, co-founder of Ecowaters Projects, West Concord, developing, promoting and demonstrating better wastewater management systems and practices. This article is excerpted and reprinted by permission from her book Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants (Ecowaters Books, ©2004-2007)
Every day, Americans excrete about 90 million gallons of urine. That day's urine contains an estimated seven million pounds of nutrients in the form of nitrogen. By some estimates, that's enough to fertalize up to 31,963 acres of corn for an entire year. And over one year, Americans "piss away" enough nitrogen to fertalize almost 12 million acres of corn -- about twice the corn grown in Indiana.
A Resource in the Wrong Place Pollutes
When we flush urine away, it flows to wastewater treatment plants or to septic systems (among other places). These discharge it to the soil, groundwater, streams, lakes, rivers, or seas -- often with much of the nitrogen intact.
In lakes and other surface waters, aquatic plants and algae consume the nitrogen, resulting in a great bloom of growth. When this growth dies and decomposes, it pulls oxygen from the water -- which can suffocate fish and other aquatic life. Underground, nitrogen can seep into drinking water, posing a potential health hazard. At the same time, farmers worldwide purchase tons of nitrogen fertilizer, much of it from industrial fertilizer factories that produce it with imported energy.
From Pollutant to Fertilizer
Using urine's nitrogen repairs this broken nutrient cycle by putting it to work instead of disposing of it. Add the fact that urine is usually sterile in healthy populations, and we have a golden opportunity. For those of us who appreciate a good free thing, urine is truly liquid gold -- a product of our bodies that can help our trees, plants, and even food crops thrive, saving fertilizer costs and taking a load off our overwhelmed environment.
Click on the above to view the broken nutrient cycle and its repercussions.
Click on the above to view how the closed nutrient cycle puts nutrients where they can do good, not causing pollution.
Safe to Use
Safe methods for using urine to nourish plants are now well documented, particularly in Sweden, where several research institutions and Stockholm's water authority studied the sociology, bacteriology, and viability of collecting urine and applying it to grain crops. Urine is typically sterile before it leaves the body in healthy individuals, and using your own urine cannot give you a disease that you don't already have.
However, it is important to take precautions. Excreta cannot be applied cavalierly: at different times throughout the world, cholera and other disease epidemics resulted from mismanaged excreta, mostly feces. This was usually due to a concentration of too people in poor health living in one place. Fertilizing with urine, following established methods that assure that any pathogens are stabilized, is a safe practice.
An Age-Old Practice Enters Modern Bathrooms
Separating urine is not new. Populations in numerous countries either urinated into a container separate from feces or used a urine diverter, a drain cast inside the toilet opening. In England, for example, the Earth Closet was a waterless urine-diverting toilet that competed with the water-flush toilet, Thomas Crapper's invention and the precursor of today's flush toilet.
Today, urine-diverting toilets stool -- also called urine-separating and no-mix toilets -- are manufactured in Sweden, Germany, Poland, Mexico, Africa, and China.
Reducing Wastewater Treatment Costs
Managing wastewater is getting increasingly more expensive. Many countries, including the United States, Canada, and Europe, are requiring wastewater to be treated to a much higher quality than before, as the effects of too many people and too much wastewater contaminate water. In coastal and other environmentally sensitive areas, federal and municipal authorities are requiring the reduction of the nutrients, or denitrification, of wastewater to protect water quality. That adds significant costs to wastewater treatment. Where does most of the nutrient content come from? Human urine.
Factor in the cost of nitrogen fertilizer purchased for farms, landscapers, and plant nurseries, and the opportunity to reduce costs while preventing pollution becomes clearer. An expensive management challenge for the wastewater industry is liquid gold to farmers and other growers.
Closer to Home
On an individual level, many people are relieved (you might say) to learn about the scientific validity of using their own liquid gold in their gardens as free fertilizer. It is empowering to know that our body's excretions can feed the plants that feed our bodies -- an easy way to reconnect with the cycle of life. And get something for nearly nothing.
Reducing Foreign Energy Dependence with Liquid Gold
Why not trade petroleum for "pee-troleum"? Collecting and using liquid gold can reduce the United States' need to import foreign energy. It can do that in two ways: 1) Alleviating the need for fertilizers made with imported natural gas, and 2) growing the ingredients for biofuels, which can replace imported fuels.
American farmers are in need of new crops to replace tobacco and other crops that compete with foreign imports. (And some farmers still receive subsidies to not grow crops at all!) Using local biofuels can prevent fuel shortages and reduce air pollution, too.
Instead of investing billions of dollars to reduce nitrogen in wastewater and manage the pollution it causes, we should instead invest in the systems needed to transport wastewater to deserts and brownfields where it can grow biological alternatives to petroleum in North America. The result: less dependence on foreign fuel and foreign policy compromises, more work for Americans, and better environmental health -- which means better human health.
Using our liquid gold to grow fuel is true local sufficiency! Using urine for plant fertilizer can help clean our lakes and rivers, save water, reduce the cost of wastewater treatment, return nutrients to farmlands, and end the unnecessary over-production of industrial fertilizers. Think twice before flushing it away!
Art Credits: Drawings by Dan Harper as published in Liquid Gold. Photos of our rivers courtesy of members of the First Parish in Concord's Photo Club. Top right: © Don Cohen. Middle right: © Judith Canty Graves'. Bottom right: Rich Stevenson. Page designed by Windfall. Other images courtesy of Clipart.com.