By Gary Kline
Urine is a valuable resource, which, like so many other under-utilized resources, is treated as a waste when the real waste is in our failure to make use of it. When it comes to human urine, however, we use the term in a double sense to mean filth. This is a doubly big mistake with major economic and environmental consequences. We need to alter our thinking and become a urine conserving and using nation.
Think of the huge amount of money this nation has sunk into “waste” treatment plants. The major reason such enormous amounts of money have been sunk into such facilities is to deal with a tiny portion (about one percent) of the effluent that makes it way to the treatment plant, namely the urine. That’s because urine is the major source of nitrogen and phosphorus that could otherwise make it into water bodies and over-fertilize them, leading to oxygen deprivation and killing off fish and other aquatic life. It can also make those water bodies unusable for swimming and as sources of drinking water. Therefore we go to great expense to take out what should not have been put in to begin with.
The point is that we don’t want urine going into our waterways and therefore we spend enormous amounts of money to prevent that or “treat” human waste (feces and urine) when we might simply divert the urine into more productive, non-polluting uses and greatly reduce the cost of waste treatment, even without making use of the fecal matter in humanure as many cultures have done throughout history. We should compost humanure, then apply it. Both Sir Albert Howard and J.I. Rodale were very big on recycling human wastes. This admittedly is not a pleasant topic, but know that in some European countries they actually do make serious efforts to divert and collect urine for use in fertilizing plants and crops in a sensible manner that keeps them from polluting lakes, streams, estuaries, etc.
For inspiration in writing this article, I am drawing upon a little book titled, Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants (2004-2007) by Carol Steinfeld. According to Liquid Gold (p.39) “Two Swedish University studies report that one Northern European adult (who consumes plant and animal proteins) produces enough fertilizer in urine to grow 50 to 100 percent of the food requirement for another adult.” The book goes on to explain that “We excrete these Nitrogen-containing compounds as urea, creatine, ammonia, and a small amount of uric acid. These nutrients could feed a hungry and growing population at a lower cost than producing more expensive chemical fertilizer.”
There is a major problem here, and throughout the book, in thinking all that really matters in fertilization is nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N-P-K), with which urine is richly endowed. Nevertheless, urine and its NPK conceivably could make up a major portion of a more complete fertilizer with some added nutrients to make it more complete and balanced. In fact, on page 40 is a chart showing that the nutrient elements calcium, magnesium, sodium, chlorine and sulfur are also in urine, but maybe not in sufficient quantity or the correct ratios. In any case, utilizing urine could make a major economically and environmentally smart contribution to feeding the world, now and on into the distant future. Some day we will have to do such smart things.
Maybe you are wondering and worrying about the disease and sanitation issue. That’s easy to address because it basically is not a concern. In healthy populations urine is sterile and it is very rare that collected urine is infected by someone having a disease in their urinary system. Even then, the disease can be eradicated by simple measures. If you use and recycle your own urine it is totally safe because, as the book points out (p. 4), you can not give yourself a disease you don’t already have.
Okay, but what about the odor problem? True, urine does stink and it gets worse the longer it sits around in an open container. But there is a simple way to counter that. Humans excrete roughly a half gallon of urine a day. Urine has roughly a one to one ratio of carbon to nitrogen which is too little carbon for aerobic microbes to process and turn into a plant-usable compound. Thus the urea will convert to ammonia and give off a noxious odor. However, if you change the ratio of carbon to 25 for each 1 part of nitrogen, microbes will convert the urea to nitrate, a plant nutrient of low odor. The way to do this is to pour urine into leaves or your compost pile or alternatively, add sugar (or possibly dried or liquid molasses) at about a third cup per person per day. Now you have a nitrogen fertilizer that also provides several other nutrient elements and compounds.
In agriculture, nitrogen is the most expensive nutrient to buy. It takes giant, energy-demanding factories to make nitrogen fertilizer from petroleum or by extracting nitrogen from the air. Whereas we need great factories to split N2 gas into two single nitrogen atoms, microbes we can’t even see do this with ease every day. But just as relevant, if we get away from the NPK mentality and simply supply all the other plant nutrient elements in correct ratios, nitrogen-fixing microbes will move in and make our nitrogen for free. But then, urine is free too.
I had a particular reason to look into the make-up, properties and methods of using urine for growing plants. Usually you use it in a highly diluted state. My interest has to do with using urine in relation to the pre-charging of biochar. This actually is done routinely in countries less averse to the idea than in our phobic and irrational society. Urine works for that purpose, but does not supply the full menu of nutrients you might want to launch your biochar addition to garden or farm soils. If we fail to pre-charge, there is an initial set-back in soil fertility improvement the first year or two. Why give up that year when you can get off to a running and pro-active fertilization start with a pre-charge solution and a two week marinating stage? This is the reason I developed a special full spectrum pre-charging slurry I named Bio-Charge, which is now on sale at BLO. Let me add that biochar is an effective deodorizer and filter on many things.
In other articles I have spelled out the astounding benefits of incorporating biochar into soil. Primarily it greatly reduces fertilization and watering needs for decades. This has tremendously profound prospects for the future of our civilization, for feeding the world’s hungry and otherwise making a tremendous impact on reversing global warming. And, of course it has highly meaningful impacts on agricultural sustainability and thereby many secondary benefits environmentally for the whole planet. We could eliminate most pesticides by doing this in conjunction with mineral-augmented organic fertilization and the return of mineral nutrients from the oceans.
©2014 Gary L. Kline All Rights Reserved