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Vermonters want to normalize composting toilets, upcycling human waste

This hour, host Mikaela Lefrak talks with Vermonters who use composting toilets and other non-traditional methods for handling human waste.

Live call-in discussion: Human waste is not something we tend to talk about. We do our business, flush our toilets, and that’s that. But some Vermonters have decided to not let their waste go to, uh, waste. They're recycling it for better use.

Host Mikaela Lefrak recently spoke with Abe Noe-Hays, cofounder and research director at nonprofit Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro; Chrissy Wade, co-owner of Wading Bear Farm & Forest in Waterville and a “humanure” compost advocate who leads Vermont's eco-sanitation working group and offers compost consultation services; and Bruce Douglas, wastewater program manager at Vermont's Department of Environmental Conservation, Drinking Water & Groundwater Protection Division.

They spoke about ways some people in Vermont are collecting and using human waste, as well as efforts to increase the acceptability of composting toilets in Vermont. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

Mikaela Lefrak: What is the Rich Earth Institute?

Abe Noe-Hays, cofounder and research director: We're an independent nonprofit research institute down in Brattleboro, and our main work is recycling urine. So we collect urine from the community, and we recycle it into a fertilizer product or an agricultural amendment that has nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. It's a great way to replace synthetic fertilizer. A lot of our urine goes to farms for growing hay.

It also keeps water clean. Because if you flush urine down the toilet — whether it goes to a septic system or to a wastewater system — most of the nitrogen and some of the phosphorus is going to go right through into the waterways, and that causes water pollution that can kill fish and just degrade the ecosystem.

Mikaela Lefrak: And how do you get access to other people's urine?

Abe Noe-Hays: We have a vibrant community here of urine donors. These are folks who want to see the products of their body become productive rather than be pollutants. We have a number of individuals who have urine-diverting toilets installed in their houses or businesses and, and those drain to a separate drain, separate from the wastewater drain. And then we come with our urine collection truck. We pump that out and bring it back to our research center.

We also have folks who want to participate but they don't want to modify their houses. So we have portable urinals that they're able to use. It's a watertight screw-top container with a little urinal on top that we developed. And you either pee into that directly or empty a small container into it. And then, like the rest of your recycling, you bring it to a recycling station. We just opened one at the Rockingham/Westminster recycling station. We have a vacuum suction system that pulls it all out of your jug, puts it into a big tank. And then you take your container home and refill it.

Mikaela Lefrak: Chrissy, can you tell us a little bit about the work that you do?

Chrissy Wade: I am a homesteader. Wading Bear Farm and Forest is our small farm business … and we moved off-grid about five years ago. And we were really excited to utilize a compost toilet system full-time for our family of four. And when we were looking into the state regulations about that, we discovered that there were three options.

The first option is to take the contents to the landfill. And the second option is to get a shallow burial permit. And the third is take it to a wastewater treatment plant.

And so as I looked into those options, I was really shocked that there wasn't a composting option. So that's what led our family into this path, and we got really passionate about it, because it works so beautifully — the composting. We are excited to educate others, and we decided we wanted to get certified in composting to really have the knowledge and understanding of making sure we were composting with the most integrity possible.

Mikaela Lefrak: What is the basic system that somebody needs to have in their house to make sure that everything is kind of safe and clean and working efficiently?

Chrissy Wade: I've got to put a shoutout for Joseph Jenkins and his The Humanure Handbook. It’s where we first learned about the simple bucket toilet system. I hate calling it the bucket, but it is, and it really can be done safely and efficiently. You just need the space. You have a nice cover on it. And it looks really like a normal toilet. … You can effectively and safely manage it with some guidance and knowledge.

Mikaela Lefrak: Bruce, how does an individual or a group like the Rich Earth Institute get approval to do something like what they're doing — recycling human waste on a larger scale?

Bruce Douglas: The state has an innovative alternative technology program. There have been about 8,000 individual systems — a few dozen technologies — that have been permitted using this program. It makes sure that the homeowners or users of the systems understand the maintenance requirements and also that there is a level of professional oversight… with an annual inspection by a trained professional.

Broadcast live on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra worked on Vermont Edition as a producer and editor from 2022 to 2024.