Human Urine More Effective And Sustainable Alternative To Chemical Fertilizers For Plants

New studies by the OCAPI research program have shown that human urine is a more effective and sustainable alternative to chemical fertilizers for plants and is a long-term resilient model for agriculture.

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According to a new study, human urine could be the answer to replacing chemical fertilizers in agriculture and residential gardens because it is safer for the environment.

Plants require nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are consumed through the food we eat and then ‘excreted, mostly through urine,’ according to Engineer Fabien Esculier of the OCAPI research program in France.

This gives an opportunity, but gathering enough urine to meet the need of industrial agriculture would necessitate adjustments to facilities and processes, including the installation of new urine funneling toilets, according to Esculier.

Chemical fertilisers, which have been used for almost a century, use synthetic nitrogen to help boost yields and raise agricultural productivity to feed the world’s population.

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They contaminate river systems and other waterways when used in large quantities, causing choking algae blooms that can kill fish and other aquatic life.

To replace chemical fertilisers, many times the weight in treated urine would be required, but because synthetic nitrogen is a significant source of greenhouse gases, developing urine collection devices would be a ‘long-term resilient model’ for agriculture.

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Human urine could be the answer to replacing chemical fertilizers in agriculture and private gardens as it is safer for the environment, according to a new study. 
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Plants need nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and these are ingested through the food we eat, ‘excreting them, mostly through urine’, said Engineer Fabien Esculier, who runs the OCAPI research programme in France. 

According to the UN, agricultural ammonia emissions can combine with vehicle fumes to cause harmful air pollution, as well as emissions of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, which contributes to climate change.

”Modern-day sanitation practices represent one of the primary sources of nutrient pollution,” said Julia Cavicchi of the US Rich Earth Institute.

She claims that urine is responsible for over 80% of the nitrogen and more than half of the phosphorus in wastewater.

Cavicchi noted that replacing chemical fertilisers would require many times the weight of treated urine, making it impractical as a solution so far.

According to the expert, the advantages of switching to urine may exceed the disadvantages, such as issues gathering urine due to rising climate change.

”Since the production of synthetic nitrogen is a significant source of greenhouse gases, and phosphorus is a limited and non-renewable resource, urine diverting systems offer a long-term resilient model for human waste management and agricultural production,” she said.

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This presents an opportunity, Esculier explained, but gathering enough urine to meet the demand of industrial agriculture would require changes to facilities and processes – including new urine funnelling toilets.

Global wastewater has the theoretical capacity to offset 13% of the world’s demand for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in agriculture, according to a UN study published in 2020, but diverting urine is easier said than done.

Before chemical alternatives began to supplant them, urban excrement was hauled to fields to be utilized as fertilizer with animal manure. 

”But now if you want to collect urine at source, you need to rethink toilets and the sewage system itself,” according to experts. 

In the early 1990s, a pilot project in a number of eco-villages in Sweden began, and now there are programs in Switzerland, Germany, the United States, South Africa, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, and France.

“It takes a long time to introduce ecological innovations and especially an innovation such as urine separation which is very radical,” said Tove Larsen, a researcher at the Eawag aquatic research institute in Switzerland.

She claims that early urine-diverting toilets were deemed unattractive and inconvenient, or that they caused disagreeable odors.

With a design that directs urine into a separate container, a new model toilet created by the Swiss firm Laufen and Eawag might overcome these problems.

While urine is not generally a major carrier of disease, the World Health Organization suggests leaving it for a length of time, however pasteurising it is also an option.

Then there are numerous procedures for concentrating or even dehydrating the liquid in order to reduce its volume and transportation costs to the fields.

Another obstacle is addressing public apprehension about bathroom activities and the possibility of storing urine.

”This subject touches on the intimate,” said Ghislain Mercier of Paris et Metropole Amenagement, a publicly-owned planning authority.

It is building an eco-district in Paris with shops and 600 housing units that would employ urine collecting to fertilize the city’s green spaces.

Large buildings, such as workplaces, as well as households without access to mains drainage, he believes, have a lot of potential. Restaurants and other public places are also included.

The 211 restaurant in Paris is fitted with urine-collecting waterless toilets. “We have had quite positive feedback,”  said owner Fabien Gandossi.

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Chemical fertilisers use synthetic nitrogen, in use for around a century, and have helped drive up yields and boost agricultural production to feed the population.

“People are a little surprised, but they see little difference compared to a traditional system,” he added. The main concern, though, appears to be whether people are ready to go to the next level and eat urine-fertilized foods.

According to one study, acceptance rates differed by nation, with high acceptance rates in China, France, and Uganda, but low acceptance rates in Portugal and Jordan.

Synthetic fertilizer prices are currently skyrocketing due to shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has prompted countries to consider bolstering their food security, according to Mercier, which could be an opportunity to’make the subject more visible’ and promote the switch to natural urine-based fertilizers.

There are still ‘obstacles to overcome,’ according to Marine Legrand, an anthropologist who works with Esculier at the OCAPI network, but water constraints and growing knowledge of pollution’s toll will help shift views.

“We are beginning to understand how precious water is,” she said, adding that soon it will “become unacceptable to defecate in it.”

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