Today’s Solutions: June 09, 2023

Humans create a lot of waste. Whether that’s electronic, agricultural, medical, or fuel waste, we have a lot to dispose of. Coming up with creative ideas to use this waste to our advantage could be what saves the Earth and everything that lives on it from the climate crisis.

An idea catching popularity in waste recycling comes from the agricultural industry, where more and more people are realizing the power of pee. This is not the first time excrement has been used in creative ways. We previously wrote about the world’s largest vertical farm that’s fed by fish poop and the idea of using elephant dung as a sustainable material for bricks.

It may seem like a crude way to fertilize plants, but the current chemicals we use to supply our crops with nitrogen have created a chemical and environmental catastrophe. This is what has caused scientists to look for new solutions to decrease the amount we rely on synthetic nitrogen and turn to more natural and available ways of fertilization.

Why do crops need nitrogen?

Nitrogen helps boost crop yield and has been used for around a century in the agricultural industry, helping feed the world’s growing population. Despite its good intention, large quantities of the chemical used when farming often leak into river systems and disrupt their delicate ecological balance. When combined with vehicle fumes in the air, nitrogen can also create dangerous air pollutants for human health and contribute to climate change.

Why is pee a better replacement? 

Many times the weight in urine would be needed to provide the same nutrients to the crops as synthetic nitrogen sources, however, the more positive environmental impact outweighs this negative.

The reduction in greenhouse gasses from reducing nitrogen production and urine sanitation practices would make a big dent in global emissions. A 2020 UN study found global wastewater could offset 13 percent of the world’s total demand for nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus in the agricultural industry.

The future is pee

Diversion of pee from our bodies to the fields would require a complicated change in our toilets and sewage system itself. Research investigating exactly how this could work was originally conducted in Sweden in the 1990s in a selection of eco-villages. Since then, countries such as Germany, South Africa, India, Switzerland, Mexico, Ethiopia, France, and the U.S. have also carried out projects following the same lead.

“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 Switzerland’s Eawag aquatic research institute.

However, the future of pee is bright! Worldwide research looking into the practicalities of this solution is being carried out, with a new Swiss model looking particularly promising.

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