How Pee Could Save the Planet




What we have always thought of, with a shudder, as waste…need not be. Because now, having learned to recycle just about everything else, we are relearning how to peecycle.

That is the term of art, and the practice is taking hold in Sweden, France, Germany, South Africa, India, Mexico, and here, especially in Vermont.

There are geopolitical advantages.

Human urine contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—the treasured ingredients in commercial fertilizer. About one-fifth of the world’s nitrogen fertilizer comes from Russia. About 40 percent of the world’s exported potassium comes from Russia and Belarus.

If we do not want to depend on Russia for oil, why would we depend on Russia to make our crops grow?

Once people stop wrinkling their noses (which is unnecessary, because even if you are collecting for your own garden, you need only add a little white vinegar to the jar), they worry that the produce will taste like pee. It does not. Nor is quality compromised: In a Finnish study, beets fertilized with pee and wood ash grew 10 to 27 percent larger.

Peecycling could replace at least 25 percent of the commercial fertilizer used worldwide. And the advantages are stunning. First, it is cheaper. Second, peecycling keeps the urine out of the groundwater. Third, you save all the water needed to keep flushing it away. Fourth, done properly, it is far less of a pollutant. Synthetic fertilizers enter our waterways and cause algae blooms that kill aquatic life. Meanwhile, the ammonia emissions combine with car exhaust to pollute the air, and the nitrous oxide emissions contribute to climate change.

In Sweden, Sanitation360 is shooting for 70,000 liters of urine, collected from waterless toilets and dried into pellets to fertilize barley. Vermont’s Rich Earth Institute collects thousands of gallons a year from volunteers who donate to a urine depot. The institute even offers a guide for home gardeners, full of nifty ideas like a ping-pong ball in a funnel to block fumes.

I handed the guide to my husband. He took a step backwards.

“Oh, come on, it’s easier for you,” I said. “Each of us could fill three bathtubs a year with our urine. Think of the waste!”

Alas, Andrew—an avid gardener worried sick about the environment—still refused. When deeper values clash with habit, propriety, and instinctive aversion, guess what wins?

The popularity of waterless toilets in Paris failed to impress him. The brilliance of using them in developing countries so feces dry faster and there is less danger of bacterial contamination did impress him but was too remote to change his mind. The cool new Scandinavian toilets that collect urine separately? Not interested.

“Urine’s practically sterile, you know,” I told him. “All those injunctions to wash your hands in the loo? It’s fecal bacteria that are so dangerous.” He winced.

“This subject touches on the intimate,” notes Ghislain Mercier of Paris et Metropole Amenagement, a planning authority that is developing an eco-district with 600 housing units, lots of bright, stylish shops—and green spaces fertilized by urine. Good for them, Andrew said.

Groping for more arguments, I went to the website of his favorite show, Gardeners World. What would the proper and gentle Brits think of the practice? “Peecycling: immodest and icky but could it save the planet?” I posted. Then I waited, wondering if the British gardeners would think I was, to borrow their slang, taking the piss.

Responses tumbled forth. “Immodest? Not remotely,” one man reassured me. But do they do it? “I do, but I live in the middle of no-where,” another wrote, “so it’s easy to unfurl the beast and let rip.” A woman said she had her husband “peeing into an empty milk carton regularly” and trotting straight outside with it. A woman who is “gardening on the wild, windy west side of Dartmoor” said her husband “always does it, even in the rain he will put on his waterproof coat and nip to the compost bins.” A gardener with their own blog wrote of a female reader who “uses an inexpensive funnel from an auto-supply store. (Auto parts for lady parts?)”

“Thevictorian,” wrote, “My allotment neighbour pees around his sweetcorn because he said it keeps the rats away,” which made the woman who hands off the milk cartons decide to start dumping the contents on her bottlebrush and magnolia to keep the deer away.

“Human waste is all methane,” a philosopher wrote, “and one day or another we are going to have to resort to old methods. Too much progress makes man weak. Like a vineyard, he needs to suffer to be strong!”

Historically minded gardeners noted that urine has been used for centuries to grow veggies, soften and dye textiles, make gunpowder and leather, and bleach wool. “I think it’s still used in the manufacture of Harris Tweed,” one suggested. “Romans cleaned their teeth in it,” another wrote, prompting a comment that “laundries would fulfil a dual purpose of offering an alternative ‘public convenience’ by allowing male passers-by to wee in the vats.”

The Brits regularly whiz to activate their compost piles. “Sailors drink it when their water supply runs out,” one noted, and another pointed out that “sewage sludge is already used, under very strict conditions, on agricultural land.”

Here, we call the sludge Class B Biosolids, and it mixes flushed urine, poop, medical waste, runoff from fields and overfertilized lawns and roadside stormwater. Yet we prefer that to a sprinkle of pee, diluted 1:10 with water?

Waste not, want not.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.