To Pee or Not to Pee

“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.”

                                                ~ Catrin Einhorn

At some point in their lives, most kids are fascinated by the toilet. We are conditioned to think of the toilet as containing bad, evil, nasty stuff, and for the most part that’s correct. But the fascination is how magically a simple push of a button or twitch of a handle can make it all “go away”.

In the Tiny Toon Adventures on TV, Plucky watched the toilet endlessly, saying, “Water go down the hole!” I could be convinced that boys were more intrigued than girls, since much of the time, we stand looking down into the toilet rather than being seated on it. I suspect that boys were more often the culprit of trying to flush toys down toilet, too. (It’s possible that that fascination is why I became a sanitary engineer … )

Along with the science teacher, I offered my son’s junior high class tours of local sewage plants where I had connections. At the big Denver facility, we stared at the headworks where all the city’s sewage entered the plant. A huge concrete basin that roiled with sewage from several massive pipes was awe-inspiring to some kids and terrifying to others. Overlooking the basin, one of the sassy girls pointed and turned to one of the boys saying, “Hey Kal, there’s one of yours!”

There were many other eye-opening experiences. But the most important was that this was all waste, somewhat recycled or reused, but ultimately, waste that went “down the hole!”

Kate Lucy of the Rich Earth Institute leads a global movement that seeks to address a slew of challenges — including food security, water scarcity and inadequate sanitation — by not wasting our waste. Catrin Einhorn notes that 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.” Einhorn adds, “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.”

Lucy’s group promotes a more sustainable approach: “Plants feed us, we feed them”.

Einhorn goes on, “Human urine … 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.”

“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. 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, Ms. Nace asserted, is a much better option Researchers found that urine, either with animal manure or alone, increased yields of some crops by about 30 percent So, every spring, in the hills around the Rich Earth Institute, a truck with a license plate reading “P4Farms” delivers the pasteurized goods.”

In addition, normal urine is already sterile and needs no disinfecting prior to use.

“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.”

“All we are saying, is give pee a chance.”

                                                (apologies to John Lennon)

Additional information:

Catrin Einhorn, Meet the Peecyclers, June 17, 2022, The New York Times

Olivia Young, How Low-Flow Toilets Save Water, June 21, 2022, TreeHugger

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