The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Urine: Waste or fertilizer?

Urine diverting toiletWhile most homesteaders know all about the potential of humanure, I've seldom heard talk of using urine.  After reading Liquid Gold, I was much more surprised by that oversight since urine has a far lower potential for creating health problems and contains a higher percentage of plant nutrients than the solid portions of humanure.

I'll write in more depth about the safety issue in later posts, but it's worth running through a quick overview right off the bat.  Unless you have a urinary tract or kidney infection (or live in a tropical climate), urine is nearly always sterile.  That means you can use fresh urine around food plants with very few concerns about food-borne illnesses.  Contrast that with composted fecal matter, which most humanure advocates recommend using only around the base of fruit trees or ornamental plants.  Why not start your humanure journey by just using urine and delete the worry?

Unfortunately, in traditional western culture, urine is channeled into the waste stream along with solid human wastes.  The additional volume of waste means that we spend more money and resources treating our wastewater...and that treatment does nearly no good to the urine.  After treatment, we release the whole shebang into natural rivers and streams, where the high nitrogen from the urine (not removed by our conventional treatment processes) causes excessive plant growth, which leads to drastic drops in dissolved oxygen levels and the resultant death of aquatic animals.

Swedish farm fertilizing with urineSwedish scientists thinks they've found a better way.  Separating toilets (like the one pictured at the top of the page) are becoming common in Sweden, where a funnel in the front of the toilet diverts the urine into a separate waste stream for eventual application to fertilize fields.  Studies suggest that one person's pee provides all the nitrogen needed to grow half or more of that person's food, and we can ship urine for more than 100 miles to apply it to agricultural fields before the energy usage matches that used to "treat" urine in a wastewater treatment plant.

Although it would be great if our municipal wastewater systems followed Sweden's example, I'm aways more interested in what each of us can individually do in our own lives.  Stay tuned for more home-scale applications of urine.

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This post is part of our Urine Fertilizer lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Hi, Anna and Mark. I just came across your blog post on urine as fertilizer, and wondered if you have heard of our institute yet: We are in Vermont and are working with local families and area farmers to recycle human urine as fertilizer. Please check out our site if you have a chance and consider mentioning us if you blog about urine again.

I am also wondering about the photo you have on this page of a tank applicator, as I have never seen that shot before. Is it from an actual urine project? If so, could you point me to where I'd find more information about the context.

Thanks very much, Abe Noe-Hays

Comment by Abraham Noe-Hays Thu Jan 2 13:32:52 2014

Abraham --- Thanks for dropping by! Maybe you'd like to write a guest post for us about your research with urine fertilization? We're always happy to share first-hand information with our readers!

The photo came from the Liquid Gold website (click on the image to see the source). There's not much data about it though. They just say: "A tank fertilizer truck trenches urine into the soil for grain crops in Sweden."

Comment by anna Thu Jan 2 14:44:01 2014

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