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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Brattleboro Institute Shares In $3 Million Grant To Research The Conversion Of Urine To Fertilizer

Marcin Szczepanski
Abe Noe-Hays, the research director at the Rich Earth Institute, applies urine as a side dressing to lettuce plots for EPA-funded study. The institute has been awarded $830,000 to continue its study of human urine as a possible fertilizer.

A Windham County research institute will get $830,000, as part of a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to continue to explore ways to turn human urine into fertilizer.The Rich Earth Institute has been conducting research in this area for the past four years.

The funding, which is by far the largest grant the group has received, will allow them to expand and continue their research for at least four more years.

Kim Nace, co-founder of Rich Earth Institute, says it's sometimes a challenge to get people to understand what the group is trying to do.

"Most people's initial reaction is, 'Ick,'" she says, standing over a 275-gallon tank filled with urine. "You know, this is so new. It's a very, very new concept for people."

Part of the National Science Foundation grant will be used to conduct what the group is calling "social research."

Nace says they want to find out what people think about urine recycling, and then create educational materials to promote the practice.

"The ick factor, I think it's so interesting that that's the main thing that we need to work through with people," she says.

Interviews and surveys will be conducted around the country, Nace says, as the group looks to broaden its scope and convince the public that collecting urine and reclaiming the nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements for reuse as fertilizer makes sense.

Nace and co-founder Abe Noe-Hayes founded Rich Earth Institute in 2012, and they largely began doing the work by collecting human urine and researching ways to turn it into safe and effective fertilizer.

Since then, the Rich Earth Institute has been working with scientists at the universities of Michigan and Buffalo, and they've received support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The $3 million National Science Foundation grant will support ongoing research to come up with economical and sustainable methods to turn urine into fertilizer.

As communities around the world deal with water shortages, Nace says diverting urine from the waste stream is one way to protect the water we still have.

And she says it's a way to save millions of dollars in sewage treatment costs.

There are more than 100 people around Brattleboro who are sending their urine to the institute.

Credit Abe Noe-Hayes
Seth True pumps urine from a tank in Brattleboro. True's employer, Best Septic, has been working with Rich Earth Institute, collecting thousands of gallons of urine for the group's work.

But Nace wants this to be a national movement.

"Think about stadiums," she says. " hink about large bus stations and airports. People go in and pee all the time. For women it's a little more complicated, because they have to learn how to use this divided bowl toilet. But for men, who stand up to pee in a public place like that, we can collect that urine."

Along with the social research, the federal grant will allow the Rich Earth Institute to hire staff and expand its Brattleboro operations.

Updated Wednesday, Sept. 7, 7:00 a.m. to clarify headline and detail the amount of money the Brattleboro group will receive from grant.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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