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UNH Students' "Urine Diversion" Program Cleans Water, Fertilizes Farms

Sam Evans-Brown

There are many challenges to a good town-gown relationship in college towns, but here’s one that doesn’t get a great deal of press: urine overloads.

On certain nights of the week, partying UNH students in Durham can overwhelm the town’s wastewater treatment plant, but a group of UNH students have teamed up with the town to get some of that nitrogen-rich urine out of the water. They plan to take that pee, and put it somewhere that it could do good.

Walking the streets of Durham on a typical Friday night, you can practically hear the bladders filling. This is when a group of four UNH seniors and however many of their friends they can wrangle into volunteering spring into action.

“Do you guys want to donate your urine to be used as fertilizer?” shouts Alyson Packhem to a stream of party-goers walking from Stoke Hall toward some off-campus housing.

“Hell yeah! Where do I go?” responds  freshman John Ciaburri, without skipping a beat.

The Pee Bus is really more like a pee wagon. It’s basically a shed mounted on trailer, with urinals cut out of five-gallon buckets. The urinals run to a collection bucket, which is pumped into a 264-gallon tank mounted on the front of the trailer.

“Originally the idea was let’s have one of those big buses and it can have little stalls in them,” explains Packhem, “but buses were too expensive, and we got this trailer for free from Durham Public Works.”

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
The accommodations are far from luxurious, but thankfully college students are a low-maintenance crowd.

Whatever it is, it clearly works for Ciaburri, who seemed well-hydrated. “Donating urine is the best thing you can do, because it’s the easiest thing you can do, and if it’s for something it’s good,” he says, elated, after having made use of the facility.

Nitrogen Spikes

The idea all started with Dave Cedarholm, the head of Durham’s Department of Public Works, as he was going over some monitoring data from the Town’s wastewater treatment plant.

“We happened to notice between 11 o’clock and 2 o’clock in the morning, there’s this dramatic spike in nitrogen actually coming into the plant, and  we also saw similar spikes during hockey games and basketball games and things like that,” says Cedarholm who is on site to ensure that the trailer is dropped off and functioning properly.

“It’s pretty obvious where that… what that source is,” he concludes.

While timing of the surges is perhaps unique to a college town, other towns deal with similar challenges. Cedarholm notes the town of Hampton on a perfect beach day probably faces a similar swell.

Waste water plants work best with a steady, even flow, and so big spikes of nitrogen coming in lead to big spikes out. Once that nitrogen hits local water-bodies it can cause a whole host of problems in ecosystems. This is especially true in the brackish waters of the Great Bay estuary, which the rivers in Durham flow to. Poor water quality in that ecosystem was the focal point of a long-legal battle between seacoast communities and the EPA, over how much money to spend on upgrading waste-water plants in various communities.

Brave Nitrogen Donors

On the first night, a Thursday, there were already takers, netting the Pee Bus seven gallons.

“We had 55… not necessarily people peeing, but 55 pee occurrences I guess,” explains Packhem. She means that there were some repeat users.

Those first pioneers were adventurous in more ways than one.

“Guys can go anywhere,” says Taylor Walter, who was the first student on board with the project, but she and Packhem agree about a dozen girls used the trailer on its maiden evening. “At least a dozen girls who were brave and wanted to just like test it out and try it out.”

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
Elizabeth McCrary - who brings the sensibilities of a business major to the project - shows off the stickers, social-media accounts, and free cookies are all used to entice hesitant underclassmen and women to participate.

  “It’s a little unconventional because it’s a, supposed to be a urinal, but there is a way to finagle, women to pee into it,” says Packhem laughing, and leaves her explanation at that.

200 people availed themselves of the pee bus the first weekend and the 25 gallons gathered will go to two local farmers.

“It’s an extraordinarily biologically available, nutrient rich fertilizer,” according to Dorn Cox. Cox is a grain farmer from Lee, but also a PhD candidate at UNH: a scientist farmer.

“Most – or 80-90 percent – of the nutrients are in actually in the urine portion of the animal manure, that’s the real concentrated fertilizer, and it’s the rest of the manure that generally has more concerns for application,” says Cox.

The concerns he is talking about include tales of e. coli tainted spinach, all of which begins when farmers don’t follow proper guidelines when spreading solid waste on a field just trying to get at the urine that could be separated out from the beginning.

Using human urine has already been tested in Brattleboro, Vermont, where a group distributed jugs to homes and collected 3,000 gallons of the stuff. It was pasteurized and applied to test strips in a hayfield, and the treated strips grew at about the same rate as one treated with synthetic fertilizer.

“Here to Educate”

But in Brattleboro, it was applied at a rate of 1,000 gallons per acre. Which begs a question for the pee bus enterprise: at 25 gallons a weekend, we’re not talking about a lot of fertilizer.

The students working on this project know it.

“I guess we’re here kind of to educate, that’s why we’re doing this,” says Adam Carignan, another of the four students involved.

I ask if he can imagine a world where there’s a pee bus, or wagon on every corner, and he replies, “I’m not sure if this is the way to go on a large scale, but the concept of using urine as a fertilizer is definitely doable.” He thinks urine separating toilets and a second system of plumbing in buildings would do the trick.

But making that work commercially is something that would take more than a few beers to work out.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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