The war in Ukraine has steeply increased the price of natural gas, a major component of fertilizers and also a primary source of energy. This, combined with the sanctions imposed on Russia, one of the world’s top exporters of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus fertilizers (contributing about 15%, 19% and 14% of the global supply respectively), is causing a severe fertilizer shortage. Amid this food catastrophe, a branch of sustainable food developers, going by the name “peecyclers,” have found a promising solution: using human urine as a suitable alternative to fertilizers by implementing the peecycling process.
Prices of fertilizers are skyrocketing worldwide, forcing farmers to produce less, and thus, unintentionally harming their livelihoods. This ripple is also extending into the food market, with the FAO Food Price Index reaching an all-time high of 159.7 points in March 2022.
Benefits of Using Human Urine as Fertilizer
- Urine is rich in nutrients. About 80% of the nitrogen and 66% of the phosphorus that human beings release as waste comes in the form of urine. Both these elements are vital in the making of fertilizers.
- In research conducted as early as 2010 in Finland, researchers planted four plots of beets and treated them with different fertilizers. Researchers fertilized one of the plots solely with urine and fertilized another with urine and wood ash. After 84 days, the researchers harvested 280 beets. The research concluded that the two samples fertilized with urine and a combination of urine/ash were “10% and 27% larger by mass, respectively, than those grown in mineral fertilizer.” Moreover, researchers noted no reduction in the number of nutrients contained in all samples, proving that urine is not a lesser substitute and can stand as an effective fertilizer.
- About 125 gallons of urine can help produce 320 pounds of wheat as urine is both organic and rich in nutrients. Using urine could reduce the pollution that arises from using nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers.
- Urine diversion is the process of collecting urine separately and using it for productive purposes. It also helps conserve freshwater and reduces the number of water bodies polluted by sewage waste.
- Urine is readily available, and hence, is much cheaper than synthetic fertilizers. Although the initial infrastructural costs of peecyling may be expensive, the cost of production for farmers could come to be much less in the future, spurring profits.
- Flushed urine has nutrients that are difficult to remove. By diverting urine for other purposes, wastewater treatment becomes much less costly as nitrogen and phosphorus are easy to remove.
How the Peecycling Process Works
A variety of systems, including cups, jugs and special toilets with attached plumbed tanks, were designed to aid the process of urine diversion. These instruments are easy to use and once the urine is collected, it is transported to the site of treatment.
The process of sterilizing urine is simpler than doing the same for feces. All one has to do to destroy the remaining pathogens is keep the collected urine between temperatures of 71-75 degrees Fahrenheit for about three months.
Urine is 95% water, and therefore, requires significant storage capacity. This is expensive, but there are ways to concentrate urine through various processes such as evaporation, distillation and reverse osmosis. One particularly effective process is “alkaline urine dehydration.” This involves raising the pH value of urine to reduce its volume and convert it into fertilizer.
Peecycling Projects Underway
- The NGO Rich Earth Institute implemented the Urine Nutrient Reclamation Program. It is a urine donation program in Vermont that is educating people on the benefits of using urine as a fertilizer and mobilizing them to donate the “liquid gold.” In 2021, the organization collected more than 12,000 gallons of urine and had “four farm partners who [applied] the urine to their hay fields.” One of them, Noah Hoskins, commented that he saw “very strong results from the urine” after applying it at the Bunker Farm in Dummerston.
- In Niger, female farmers have implemented the usage of sanitized urine (referred to as “Oga” by the natives) to fertilize crops in areas where the soil is infertile. The peecycling process for them has proven to produce a higher yield of pearl millet, their staple crop, by about 30%. This means more profit for the farmers because urine is a low-cost, risk-free input.
- A team of researchers associated with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Uppsala, Sweden, is trying to expand the peecycling process into a large-scale process that every region in the world can emulate. The Gotland project started in 2021 and is carrying out its experiments with urine on barley fields. The researchers developed a process that converts urine into a powder, which is then easily compressed into fertilizer pellets. Such equipment is easy for farmers to use on a daily basis.
- Certain regions in Uganda, where there are limited “soil nutrient management” options, use urine to increase crop production. The research began on a small scale in 2014. Published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the experiment concluded that human urine is indeed advantageous for smallholder farmers as it increased their food security and income.
A lot of potential is yet to be unpacked from human urine and scientists are on top of it. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: the peecycling process provides a feasible solution to global fertilizer shortages, ensuring food security worldwide.
– Anushka Raychaudhuri