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Farmers Reap The Benefits Of 'Pee-Cycling'

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belchonock via Getty Images
belchonock via Getty Images

This post originally appeared on Mother Nature Network.

Human urine contains at least 3,079 compounds. Some of them are produced naturally in the body. Others of them come from the things we put in and on our bodies. Two things that are commonly found in urine are nitrogen and phosphorous, both very useful for fertilizing plants. It’s not uncommon for gardeners to pee in the garden or on their compost pile to add these free, natural fertilizers to the soil.

It sounds a little gross, but it really does make sense to recycle urine for fertilizing gardens or farms, and the practice has a name, “pee-cycling.” In Vermont, the Rich Earth Institute is looking to turn "pee-cycling" into something more than just people heading out to their gardens after dark and peeing straight onto their garden soil. The organization is looking to stop wasting this nutrient-filled human waste on a larger and more organized scale.

NPR profiled the Rich Earth Institute and its pilot program with 170 volunteers who donate their urine, about a quart per volunteer each day. The urine is collected and given to a farmer who uses it to fertilize hayfields in place of synthetic fertilizers. Rich Earth is currently the only “legally authorized and publicly documented urine reuse project in the U.S.”

Is this “inherently local and renewable source of fertilizer,” as Rich Earth co-founder Abraham Noe-Hays calls it, safe? Yes, when it comes straight from the source. Human urine is sterile, and peeing directly onto a garden or compost pile ensures it’s sterile when it hits the soil. But, in a collection project like Rich Earth’s, there’s a risk of contamination in the urine-diverting toilets or waterless urinals that are used, so the institute is testing two different sanitation methods right now.

So far the results of the pilot program have been encouraging. The 2013 hay fields that used “pee-cycling” for fertilization had dramatically increased yields, and now there are other farmers in the region who are on a waiting list for pee.

In addition to being a useful fertilizer, urine that is kept out of local waterways reduces the need for treatment with harsh chemicals, Rich Earth Institute’s website explains.

In 2013, Rich Earth’s goal was to collect 3,000 gallons of urine, and it reached that goal with 170 volunteers. The goal is double for 2014 and more volunteers are needed to donate to the program, but you have to live near Brattleboro, Vermont, to participate.

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