For a couple of months in 2012, a Vermont town collected a very unusual recyclable: human urine.

In addition to plowing 60 inches of snow every year, Brattleboro’s eight public works employees maintain roads, fire hydrants, water meters, and water delivery and sewer collection systems for 12,000 people in a 32-square-mile service area. They also operate a 1.3 mgd wastewater treatment plant.

Waste as a renewable resource

That’s why they were collecting and storing urine that residents dropped off: They were helping a local nonprofit that promotes human waste as a renewable resource.

Founded in 2011, the Rich Earth Institute is the nation’s first community-scale “urine diversion” program. Similar to separating aluminum, glass, and paper from landfill-bound trash, urine is diverted from the wastewater stream.

Urine contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium: elements essential to plant growth. The institute uses reverse osmosis to harvest and turn these nutrients into highly concentrated fertilizer that local farmers apply to hay fields. Theoretically, the 45 billion gallons of urine the U.S. produces annually could become 9 billion pounds of fertilizer.

Sewer utilities, especially small operations with strict nutrient discharge limits, would spend less on treatment facilities. Homeowners with septic systems would also see their costs go down.

Next page: Icky, icky!