In 2003, environmental toxicologists in Texas found that Prozac and other drugs found in human urine were detected in fish living and caught near waste treatment plants. However, local researchers have found a way to greatly reduce the amount of these chemicals that are being released into the environment.
Residents of the Deerfield Valley have been donating their urine to the cause, sometimes without even knowing it. Behind Tallulah’s Antiques & More, at the intersection of Route 100 south and Route 9, there is a portable toilet which is unlike most others in two important ways. Visitors are greeted by the smell of wood shavings when they open the door, and when they relieve themselves, their urine is diverted to a special storage tank.
The essential material is then collected by Best Septic, of Westminster, and delivered to scientists working on the EPA- funded research. According to Lisa Granfors, who runs the coffee shop located on the same property as the antique store, the portable toilet looks like any other, but once inside, users can tell there is a difference. “I always tell customers, and anyone who stops by, ‘It’s the best Porta-John in the Northeast.’”
Instead of chemical perfumes and deodorizers of doubtful efficacy, toilets set out by Best Septic use a large quantity of wood shavings that sit in a bin waiting to receive waste and toilet paper, dropped from above. Additionally, some toilets have been set up so that all urine is diverted to a separate tank, and not allowed to mix with the solid waste in the bin.
“Keeping the solids and liquids separated is the key to keeping the odors down,” said Seth True, portable toilet manager for Best Septic. True said that the solids and liquids were both collected without the use of pumping equipment.
After the urine in the tanks is collected, it is delivered to the Rich Earth Institute, a nonprofit organization in Brattleboro that partners with universities to conduct research. According to Rich Earth’s founder, Abe Noye-Hayes, his organization determined that when urine that contained these pharmaceuticals was mixed with soil, the drugs were broken down by microbes. After time had passed, the chemicals could only be found at very low levels.
“The short story is waste treatment plants remove some of these chemicals from the urine before releasing them to the rivers, but it’s a very incomplete removal. The soil does a much more effective job of removing the pharmaceuticals from the environment,” said Noye-Hayes.
Other research by Rich Earth has focused on using urine, which is rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, as a fertilizer for hay, and some farmers in Brattleboro have started this practice. While hay is the main crop being studied, the researchers also examined what concentrations of drugs might end up in vegetables if urine, which is first pasteurized, is used to fertilize them. According to the institute, the concentrations of drugs in the vegetables were so low that ,“If Julius Caesar were still alive and had eaten a pound of urine-fertilized lettuce from our study every day of his life, by now he would have ingested as much caffeine as can be found in two large cups of coffee. Yes, pharmaceuticals are present, but at extremely low levels.” Noye-Hayes said that this was also true of other drugs found in urine, such as acetaminophen.
According to True, there are many advantages for both the customer and his company in using the non-liquid version of the portable toilet. “In the winter, we used to end up with toilets that needed to be hauled away. The antifreeze doesn’t always work, and we could end up with a field of them (portable toilets) that we had hauled back to our business. Also, it saves money. When it’s cold, the pumping equipment can take a lot of wear and tear. This system makes that unnecessary, so there is a savings. ” True said that he was unaware of any other local company using the urine-diverting toilets. Currently the company is researching the production of new portable toilets, which will make harvesting the urine easier. According to True, once the design process is complete, a manufacturer will be sought.
True said that some people in southern Vermont are concerned enough about the environment that they drive to Rich Earth’s urine depot in Brattleboro, where they donate bottles of urine they have saved. Other people keep their donations in 55-gallon drums at their house, which Best Septic workers come and pump out for delivery to the researchers in Westminster. According to Rich Earth, by simply not flushing all that urine down the drain, these donors saved 104,000 gallons of potable water in 2015.
To learn more visit richearthinstitute.org.