BRATTLEBORO — When people learn what the Rich Earth Institute does, they like to make jokes.
“People often think it’s somewhat humorous, the idea of it,” said Abraham Noe-Hays, the Brattleboro nonprofit organization’s co-founder and research director.
The idea that tickles so many funny bones is turning human urine into fertilizer, a project the Rich Earth Institute has been pursuing since Noe-Hays and Kim Nace, the organization’s executive director, founded it in 2012. In that time, the group has worked to educate people on the value of human waste as a natural resource.
“There’s actually a huge amount of fertilizer value in human urine, specifically,” Noe-Hays said. “And when we flush that into the wastewater system, those nutrients become pollution, they cause algae blooms, they can reduce oxygen levels. That kills fish and other aquatic species. It damages the environment, when that goes into the wastewater. But if we can get those plant nutrients out of the wastewater and into a concentrated fertilizer product, then that’s actually able to support sustainable agriculture in a way that doesn’t depend on synthetic fertilizers.”
The institute’s mission got a significant boost recently when the National Science Foundation, a federal entity, awarded the group a $225,000 Small Business Innovation Research Grant, according to a news release the institute issued late last week. The grant will fund a yearlong project to develop a self-contained system that pairs with commercially available urine-diverting toilets to convert urine — which is rich in essential plant-growing elements such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium — into a sanitized, concentrated liquid fertilizer.
“Our job over the next year is to develop a prototype of that, so that ultimately that can be just a module that you install in the basement of a building, and it does the whole processing system and just outputs a fertilizer product of value that can be taken away and used,” Noe-Hays said.
If the Rich Earth Institute meets the performance metrics laid out in its grant application, the organization will be eligible next year for a Phase II grant for up to $775,000. That funding would help the institute turn its prototype into a marketable product within three years, Noe-Hays said.
The market for products like this already exists, he added, but right now mainly offers expensive in-ground systems that remove nitrogen from wastewater. These sorts of systems are already mandated for buildings in certain sensitive watershed areas, and often require disruptive installation and continued maintenance. The Rich Earth Institute, Noe-Hays said, wants to build a system that is more cost-effective and less disruptive than these existing products, while also producing a useful result in the form of fertilizer.
Part of the institute’s broader mission, along with other research and education on using human waste as a resource, is proving that these kinds of self-contained urine-conversion systems can work on large and small scales. Currently, some larger cities can afford to retrofit their wastewater plants to remove nutrients from urine, but that process is cost-prohibitive for most smaller communities, according to Noe-Hays.
“By removing [the nutrients] at the beginning of the pipe, through urine-diverting toilets, we are able to implement it in any setting, whether it’s a commercial or residential setting, whether it’s a building served by a small septic system or a city sewer,” he said.
Urine-diverting toilets are normal porcelain toilets with a divided bowl, in which the front part of the bowl drains directly into a urine tank. Noe-Hays said he has found that people who use these sorts of toilets, and see the conversion process at work, tend to get behind the idea.
“It’s not a very big deal once you see it. We’re all used to using the toilet, and this is not much of a shift,” he said. “... It turns out that people are usually intrigued by it and see the value in it.”
Over the past eight years, the Rich Earth Institute has developed a urine-collection network of about 200 participants. The institute collects their urine, either from a portable five-gallon urinal or a urine-diverting toilet system, and brings it to the organization’s research center at 355 Old Ferry Road. There, the urine is sanitized through pasteurization and converted into fertilizer, which is distributed to local farmers, most of whom use it to grow hay.
“I think that’s why we’ve had so much success with people joining the project and being involved, is that they get a lot of satisfaction that something that comes from them can go to farms and support the fertility of sustainable farms,” Noe-Hays said. “It’s a pretty nice thing to be able to do directly from your own body.”
The Rich Earth Institute had been renting its space at the research center until mid-May, when the organization purchased the 7,000-square-foot facility.
“We’ve been equipping it as a urine-recycling facility and a research facility, and so now we have the security that we get to stay there into the future, and that we can continue to increase our capacity for processing urine and improve our facilities for doing research,” Noe-Hays said.
Once social-distancing measures are lifted, the institute plans to open the facility to tours, so people can see the urine-conversion process for themselves, according to a news release from the organization. This sort of public exposure allows for the institute to educate people on the benefits of using human waste as a resource, Noe-Hays said. And that, he added, helps turn all the jokes about the Rich Earth Institute’s work into action from the community.
“All those things bring the conversation forward, because urine is not something you get to talk about very often, but it seems like people really take the opportunity when it presents itself,” Noe-Hays said. “... It’s a very personal thing. It’s something that we all make every day, and we’re used to sort of hiding that, getting rid of it in secret. And then when people have the opportunity to have their own urine go to a beneficial purpose, they get kind of excited about that.”