Abe has many friends, or rather, participants, donating their nutrient-rich urine to his projects. More than one hundred participants, in fact, who generate over five thousand gallons of urine each year to be used in fertilizing trials on the hayfields of two local farms near his home in Brattleboro, Vermont. As a farmer with a hayfield that needs a little TLC, I am duly impressed by the photographs he shows me of the experiment; the swaths without urine look like my tired hayfield, while the strips with urine fertilizer grow lush and green. “Every day, one person’s urine contains enough nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to grow the wheat for a loaf of bread. And a lot of trace nutrients too,” Abe tells me. It’s enough to make me think again about the valuable nutrients my family is flushing away. Then again, maybe I’m an easy person to convince. After all, I spent my four years at COA using facilities installed by Abe himself.
Human ecology of waste
Abe has been applying human ecology to composting and human waste diversion since his early days at COA. Eight years before he installed the composting toilets in the Kathryn W. Davis Residence Village, he piloted the idea with homemade commodes in the handicap stalls of the Thorndike Library. He had become interested in the sources of soil fertility while working at Beech Hill Farm and studying agroecology. “Where does it all come from and how does it get renewed?” he wondered.
“I realized that the nutrients were sort of on a one-way track. We would recycle them on the farm—we composted everything, used cover crops—but when that fertility [the produce] leaves the farm, it ends up on someone’s plate, then in someone’s toilet.” So with permission from COA’s buildings and grounds, a carefully engineered compost bin with twenty-seven sensors, and the Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins as assurance for skeptics—Look, it won’t smell!—Abe sought to achieve high-temperature composting on a home scale.
“I was afraid my toilets weren’t going to get enough business,” Abe tells me with a chuckle. But the opposite was true; he had to shut them down for most of the week because he was on track to collect more “donations” than would fit in his compost bin. The experiment was a success, a perfect senior project for a student whose other projects included an independent study on vermiculture, or worm composting, and being the “compost Kaiser,” in charge of all the Take-A-Break food waste. His senior project, he says, “got me hooked on composting. It was human ecology. It was psychology. It was biology. There was physics and chemistry. I learned a lot about thermodynamics—it engaged so many different ways of thinking and angles of looking at things, and a lot of my different abilities. So I finished at COA saying, alright, I guess I’m in the composting toilet business!”
With a grin he adds, “It was a seamless transition.” He started by fixing his parents’ composting toilet and kept going, his passion and expertise naturally developing into his business, Full Circle Composting Consulting. But he wasn’t completely satisfied. “Because of rules restricting its use, which vary from state to state, it becomes really difficult to use the compost beneficially. It felt like I was providing toilets, but not cycling nutrients.” In 2011, Abe received an enthusiastic call from fellow Brattleboro resident Kim Nace, whose master’s thesis in 1989 centered on composting toilets. That connection sparked a collaboration that soon became the Rich Earth Institute, which today employs six people and works on the myriad questions surrounding the best methods for and uses of urine recycling.
Kim gives me the full tour of her own home system, starting with the normal-looking bathroom with a varnished wooden box where a toilet would be. The toilet seat would be normal too, except for a molded plastic divider that shunts urine to a separate receptacle down cellar. Feces and toilet paper go down the back, followed by a scoop of sweet-smelling wood shavings. We head next to the basement where three rectangular recycling bins—the sort of bin you might see on a trash pick-up day—sit on wheels. The lids, however, have been modified. One is hooked up to a flexible plastic hood sealed to a pipe coming through the ceiling above. These bins are for solid waste, and they are on a simple rotation. It takes six months for the first to fill up. By the time the third bin is full, the first is over a year old and has decomposed into dry compost. And the urine? Kim points to a pipe that comes down through the ceiling, leads underground, and then to their side yard where a 275-gallon plastic tank surrounded by insulated concrete is buried. It takes six to eight months for her family of three (who work from home) to fill it.
Another such tank resides above-ground at a nearby urine depot, where participating families bring urine in five-gallon, rectangular plastic jugs to a pump-out station beside the tank. These small jugs allow participants who do not have built-in waste diversion systems in their homes (or a garden or farm on which to use their nutrients) to donate their urine to the Rich Earth Institute. I eye these five-gallon “cubies,” as they are called, a bit skeptically. Lacking the Y chromosome, I have a hard time imagining how to use them. I needn’t worry. While a funnel allows the cubie to function as a stand-alone urinal, those who prefer to sit can fit a nifty insert called a “nun’s cap” into their flush toilets. This receptacle has a spout that makes it easy to pour the contents into the cubie after each use. Vinegar is added to each fresh cubie to reduce odor and lock up nutrients. In fact, Abe says that an odor coming from your compost or composting toilet means nutrients are escaping. The Rich Earth Institute has brought portable urine collecting toilets to large festivals such as Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers. Users find them much more pleasant and ecologically friendly than a plastic box full of liquid, blue, perfumey chemicals.
But if you’re not a farmer in need of fertilizer, why worry about what you flush away? Abe and Kim offer some compelling facts, noting that there’s no real away in flushing. In her own home, Kim estimates that she saves 12,800 gallons of water each year just by eschewing the flush toilet. That’s especially attractive after a dry Vermont summer in which many reliable springs went dry. But even in a wet year, it’s less water for the wastewater treatment plant to process, and, more importantly, diverts most of her home’s nutrients away from the sewer system. Getting those nutrients to a farm keeps them out of waterways, where discharge from water treatment plants can be a substantial culprit in nutrient pollution and eutrophication. It’s the urine, Abe explains, that contains most of the nutrients in human waste, a fact that surprises most people. “So if you’re looking to recycle nutrients, and you’re thinking about starting with number one or number two, urine is the one to start with.” Partly for economic reasons, the town of Brattleboro is considering teaming up with the Rich Earth Institute to use urine diversion, rather than costly treatment upgrades, to meet new, more stringent pollution requirements.
In Sweden, says Abe, urine diversion is encouraged by the government because of the environmental benefits. “The World Health Organization says that pure urine collected at home is safe to use immediately as fertilizer. If you’re using it on raw crops, wait a month before harvesting them. If it’s urine collected beyond the household level, store it for at least a month at room temperature.” The United States, however, does not yet have regulations regarding urine diversion, so the Rich Earth Institute’s efforts are currently lumped in with wastewater treatment plants. As such, they must pasteurize the urine before applying it. “We put it on hayfields because we wanted to start the project in a way that didn’t stir up too many people’s anxieties. We’ve since done trials on vegetables, but psychologically … well, there are plenty of hayfields!”
The Rich Earth Institute recently collaborated with the University of Michigan on a two-year study seeking evidence of pharmaceuticals and associated metabolites in vegetable crops fertilized with urine. “We were looking at the soil, the crops that were grown in the soil, and the soil water.” The study used urine from their portable urinals and from permanent urinals at a major rest area in eastern Massachusetts, guaranteeing a large and diverse sample size. The most prevalent compound? Caffeine. Followed by acetaminophen—Tylenol. But even as the most abundant drug by far in urine, caffeine was at such low levels in the lettuce that one would have to eat a whole salad from the study plot every day for two thousand years to accrue as much caffeine as is in a single cup of coffee.
Our conversation circles back to COA, and then, of course, to human ecology. Reflecting back to what he loved about COA, Abe recalls, “When I was starting to think about colleges, a friend gave me a copy of the Princeton Review with COA bookmarked. I thought, Wow, this is so cool, I can’t wait to read the rest of the book! I thought the whole thing was going to be full of schools like COA.” Fresh from completing the Appalachian Trail, “I felt pretty grown-up and ready to tackle the next thing. COA was a place where I could pursue the science that I was passionate about … but have it incorporated with everything else I took. So I also took literature and philosophy and I loved how when I sat down to write papers often there’d be elements of all of my classes in those papers. At first it felt like cheating, and then I realized, no, it was working!”
Faculty members “Suzanne Morse and John Anderson were really influential in my course of studies,” Abe continues, “Suzanne got me turned onto agroecology and excited about all of the potentials for more sustainable agriculture systems. And when I was trying to figure out what my senior project would be, it was John who said, You’re into all this composting, why not do composting toilets? That’s what got me going in this direction.
“It’s exciting to be doing this work that I love doing. I feel so lucky that it’s a total progression from my undergrad studies to my senior project, and now to this work that I love. I’m a research director with a BA! And it works because it’s a field where the cutting edge is a lot of hands-on stuff that takes a human ecologist to do. We have legal and permitting stuff, we have human relationships, we have agriculture, chemistry. I do a lot of hands-on, applied, quantitative experimentation that’s right out of my thesis. It’s just so engaging to have that many facets to the work. … And I get to tinker! I’ve always loved to tinker.” Many specialized partners “have a piece of it, and they interface into this project in a great way, there’s a lot of synergy. But we’re this hub, and I feel like the human ecological approach is what makes it possible.”
As I bundle up for the cold outdoors, one last question occurs to me. “Can I make a donation?”
Marina Garland ’12 lives and works in Weathersfield, Vermont on a small, mostly subsistence, intergenerational farm, where she and her husband, Hank, tend gardens, orchards, sheep, chickens, and bees. Seasonal work adds pruning, grafting, cider making, sugaring, haying on neighboring farms, and teaching natural history at the local elementary school—work in which human ecology is, of course, ever-present.