TOP STORIES Meet the Picyclers. Their idea to help farmers...

Meet the Picyclers. Their idea to help farmers is #1.


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BRATTLBORO, Virginia — When Kate Lucy saw a poster in town inviting people to learn about something known as squeaking, she was taken aback. “Why would someone urinate in a jug and save it?” she asked. “Sounds like a stupid idea.

She had to work on the evening of the information session, so she sent her husband, John Sellers, to satisfy her curiosity. He came home with a pitcher and a funnel.

Human urine, Mr. Sellers found out that night seven years ago, is full of the same nutrients that plants need to thrive. In fact, he has much more than number two, almost without pathogens. Farmers commonly apply these nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—to crops in the form of chemical fertilizers. But this comes with high environmental costs due to fossil fuels and mining.

The local non-profit Rich Earth Institute, which hosted the session, worked on a more sustainable approach: Plants feed us and we feed them.

Experts say such efforts are becoming increasingly important. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated a worldwide fertilizer shortage that is driving farmers to despair and threatening food supplies. Scientists also warn that it will only become more difficult to feed a growing global population in the face of climate change.

Now, after over a thousand gallons of donated urine, Ms. Lucy and her husband are part of a global movement that seeks to solve a myriad of issues, including food insecurity, water scarcity, and inadequate sanitation, without throwing away our waste.

According to Ms. Lucy, collecting urine in a jug was “a little messy” at first. But she was a nurse and he was an early childhood teacher; urine didn’t scare them. They went from throwing a couple of containers every week or so at the organizer’s house to having large tanks at their house that were professionally pumped out.

Now Ms. Lucy experiences a pang of regret when she goes to the regular toilet. “We make this amazing fertilizer with our bodies and then flush it out with gallons of another precious resource,” Ms. Lucy said. “It’s really wild to think about it.”

Toilets are, in fact, the largest source of water consumption in homes. according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Smarter management could save massive amounts of water, a dire need as climate change exacerbates drought in places like the American West.

It could also help solve another major problem: inadequate sanitation systems, including leaky septic tanks and aging sewage infrastructure, are overloading rivers, lakes and coastal waters with nutrients from urine. Runoff from chemical fertilizers exacerbates the situation. Result algal bloom causing mass death of animals and other plants.

In one dramatic example, manatees in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon starve to death after sewage-induced algae blooms have wiped out the seagrass they depend on.

“Urban and aquatic environments are getting horribly polluted, while rural environments are being depleted of what they need,” said Rebecca Nelson, professor of plant science and global development at Cornell University.

In addition to the practical benefits of turning urine into fertilizer, some are also drawn to the revolutionary idea behind this endeavor. By reusing what was once washed away, they say, they are taking a revolutionary step towards overcoming the biodiversity and climate crisis: moving away from a system that is constantly extracting and discarding to a circular economy that reuses and recycles in a continuous cycle.

Chemical fertilizers are far from being sustainable. In the commercial production of ammonia, which is mainly used as a fertilizer, fossil fuels are used in two ways. Firstly, as a source of hydrogen, necessary for the chemical process of converting nitrogen from air into ammonia, and secondly, as a fuel for obtaining the necessary intensive heat. One estimate is that ammonia production contributes to 1 to 2 percent global carbon emissions. Phosphorus, another key nutrient, is extracted from rocks that are constantly being depleted.

Across the Atlantic, in the Niger countryside, another study of urine fertilization was designed to address a more local problem: how can female farmers increase crop yields? The women, often sent to the fields farthest from the city, struggled to find or transport enough manure to replenish their soils. Chemical fertilizers were too expensive.

The team, which included Aminou Ali, director of the Maradi Farmers Union Federation in south-central Niger, suggested that the relatively fertile fields closer to people’s homes received support from people who urinated outside. They consulted doctors and religious leaders about whether urine fertilization could be tried and got the green light.

“So we said, let’s test this hypothesis,” recalls Mr. Ali.

It took some persuasion, but in the first year, 2013, they had 27 volunteers collect urine in jars and apply it to plants along with manure; no one was willing to risk their crops just for piss.

“The results we got were fantastic,” Mr. Ali said. The following year, about 100 more women were impregnated with his help, then 1000. His team research eventually found this urine, together with manure or alone, increased the yield of millet, the main crop, by about 30 percent. This could mean more food for the family, or an opportunity to sell the surplus at the market and get cash for other needs.

For some women, the use of the word “piss” was taboo, so they renamed it “oga”, which means “boss” in the Igbo language.

To pasteurize the urine, it remains in the jar for at least two months before the farmer applies it. plant by plant. Urine is used at full concentration if the ground is wet, or if it is dry, diluted 1:1 with water so that the nutrients do not burn the crops. Scarves or masks are welcome to help with the smell.

At first, the men were skeptical, said Hannatu Moussa, an agronomist who is working with Mr. Ali on the project. But the results spoke for themselves, and soon the men began to save their urine too.

“Now there’s competition in the house,” said Dr. Moussa, as each parent fights for extra urine to convince kids to use their container. She added that, recognizing the dynamics, some children began demanding money or candy in exchange for their services.

Children are not the only ones who see the economic potential. Some enterprising young farmers have started collecting, storing and selling urine, Mr. Ali said, and the price has jumped from $1 for 25 liters to $6 over the past couple of years.

“You can take your urine the same way you take a gallon of water or a gallon of fuel,” Mr Ali said.

So far, research into collecting and packaging nutrients in urine has not advanced enough to solve the current fertilizer crisis. For example, large-scale urine collection will require transformational changes in the plumbing infrastructure.

In addition, there is an unpleasant factor that the proponents of piccycling face face to face.

“Human waste is already being used to fertilize the foods you find at the grocery store,” said Kim Neiss, co-founder of the Rich Earth Institute, which collects the urine of about 200 volunteers in Vermont, including Ms. Lucy, for the study. and application on several local farms.

The substance already in use is treated residues from wastewater treatment, known as biosolids, which contain only a fraction of the nutrients in urine. It can also be contaminated with potentially harmful chemicals from industrial and household sources.

Urine, Ms. Neiss argued, is a much better option.

So every spring, in the hills around the Rich Land Institute, a truck with a P4Farms license plate delivers pasteurized food.

“We are seeing very strong results from urine,” said Noah Hoskins, who uses it in hayfields at a bunker farm in Dummerston, where he raises cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys. He said he wished the Rich Earth Institute had more pee. “We are in a moment where the cost of chemical fertilizers has more than doubled, and they really are a part of our system that is out of our control.”

One of the biggest problems, however, is that it makes no ecological or economic sense to transport urine, which is mostly water, from cities to remote farmlands.

To address this issue, the Rich Earth Institute is working with the University of Michigan to develop a process for producing disinfected urine concentrate. And at Cornell, inspired by efforts in Niger, Dr. Nelson and colleagues are trying to bind urine nutrients to biochar, a kind of charcoal, in this case made from feces. (It’s important to keep faeces in mind, Dr. Nelson noted, because they contribute carbon, another important part of healthy soil, along with small amounts of phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen.)

Similar experiments and pilot projects are being carried out around the world. In Cape Town, South Africa, scientists find new ways to collect urine nutrients and reuse the rest. In Paris, officials plan to install urine-diverting toilets in 600 new apartments, process the urine and use it for the city’s tree nurseries and green spaces.

Kartish Mantiram, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, said he was interested to see where the effort would lead. His own laboratory is trying to develop a clean process for synthesizing nitrogen from air. “All of these methods need to be used because it is too early to tell now what will win,” said Dr. Mantiram.

What you can be sure of, he said, is that the current methods of making fertilizer will be replaced because they are so unsustainable.

Writers in Vermont describe the personal benefits of their work: a sense of accomplishment from the thought that their own body’s nutrients are helping to heal rather than harm the earth.

“PeeTheChange hashtag,” joked Julia Kavicki, who leads education at the Rich Earth Institute. “Puns aren’t the only reason I work in this field,” she added, “but it’s definitely an advantage.”

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