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What Is Peecycling? How Farmers Are Utilizing Urine as a Sustainable Fertilizer

Peecycling is a buzzy topic. But what it is, exactly? Here's how farmers are utilizing urine as a sustainable fertilizer.

Written by
Tehrene Firman
Published

When we first came across the word "peecycling" in a headline, we did a doubletake. We're used to all things recycling around here, but peecycling? Yeah... not so much.

Peecycling—aka recycling human urine—gives "liquid gold" an entirely new meaning. But while the concept is making waves today, it's nothing new. Urine has been used as fertizilizer since 1867. Before making its way to the United States, it was considered a sustainable farming practice around the world in Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

So, why is peecycling making headlines now? And can it really replace synthetic fertilizers, making farming more eco-friendly?

The Benefits of Peecycling

When we eat, we're taking in important nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. When we pee, those excess nutrients are flushed down the toilet. Literally. Past researchers thought there was a better use for urine: utilizing it for plants, which thrive on these wasted nutrients.

In theory, if done correctly, urine could make a difference in replacing synthetic fertilizers. If deployed on a large scale around the world, researchers say humans "produce enough urine to replace about one-quarter of current nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers worldwide."

Aside from reducing synthetic fertilizers, which adversely affect ecosystems, researchers note that peecycling also offers other environmental benefits. This includes preventing urine from polluting bodies of water, saving water from not flushing pee down the drain, and lessening the strain on overloaded sewage systems.

All in all, past research found urine holds enough nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to offset over 13% of the agricultural fertilizer demand. But convincing people to save their urine to fertilize plants they'll later be eating is understandably difficult.

The Future of Peecycling

Peecycling could help save the world—but there are plenty of obstacles stopping it from becoming commonplace in farming practices.

First of all, toilets would need to be transformed in order to collect the urine—and facilities and processes would need to be put into place to get that pee from your toilet to the farm. This would essentially involve re-engineering the entire sanitation system as we know it, which is no easy feat.

Even if urine collection became a thing, there's another major issue: getting people to be okay with eating produce that was fertilized by other people's pee. The numbers aren't as low as you would think, though: In a 2020 survey of more than 3,700 people at 20 universities across 16 countries, 59% were willing to eat urine-fertilized food.

Not surprisingly, these answers differed greatly by country. France was the most accepting, with 80% of respondents willing to consume it. The United States fell slightly above average at 61%.

The Takeaway

It's hard to say if—or when—peecycling will become a norm. Especially in the United States. With that being said, there's already progress being made in certain areas.

In Vermont, the Rich Earth Institute accepts urine donors in the first community-scale program of its kind in the United States. Right now, it's collecting more than 10,000 gallons of urine a year, which is then sanitized and used as fertilizer to grow crops.

Who knows—if more areas hop on board, pee-fertilized produce could be coming to an organic grocery store near you. Only time will tell.