Almost all of the nitrogen and phosphorous we ingest comes out of our bodies—what if we could return it to the soil?
Follow Kim Nace into her bathroom. Yes, it’s okay; many people visit here, headquarters of the country’s first community urine recycling program. Let her show you the odorless, waterless toilet: a wooden box inset with a conventional toilet seat and lid. Under the lid, a large, clean hole in the back lets solid waste drop to a container in the basement. In the front, a wide, plastic funnel channels urine to an underground tank.
What if we could keep urine out of wastewater and use it?
It’s the urine that captivates Nace, executive director of the Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont. For the past five years her organization has grown a movement of scientists, farmers, and volunteers seeking to answer the question: how can we intercept the nitrogen and phosphorous polluting our waterways, reroute it to farmers’ fields, and in the process, reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers?
The crux of their solution, it turns out, lies within each of us—and the choices we make in the bathroom.
What comes out of our bodies contains almost all of the nitrogen and phosphorous we ingest. Abe Noe-Hays, research director at the Rich Earth Institute, explains it this way: “When plants grow and produce food, that food is full of nitrogen and phosphorous. When we eat it, we rearrange the molecules, but the elements don’t go away; they come out dissolved in our urine. If we can return those elements to the soil, it really is giving back the very thing we took in the first place.”
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