Recently, while attending a Sustainability Tour in San Francisco, I learned about urine diversion, the practice of keeping urine out of the waste stream and putting it to work in the garden. At the time, Carol Steinfeld's book, Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants, was passed around the group with great reverence. Needless to say, I was intrigued, and so set out on a quest to not only find the book but the author herself. After all, what brings a person to this work, and how can the rest of us benefit from reassessing our addiction to the comfortable cradle of modern-day plumbing?
Steinfeld speaks to me from her office on Fish Island, Mass., where she is known, she shares with a laugh, for her work. Urine diversion is not a new concept, of course. Men do it all the time, Steinfeld tells me, and many people, when they learn of what she does, are happy to be able to share stories of grandmothers and grandfathers who once used urine to fertilize the roses, to produce those extra juicy papayas or to keep the flies off the farm animals. Others, however, react with a grimace, and some—when she first shares cherry tomatoes from her garden and secondly relates her fertilization techniques—will stop chewing midbite.
Steinfeld became involved in waste diversion while working at an ad agency in the Bay Area. Next door to her office was a man selling low-flush and composting toilets. Steinfeld, who had been looking for an "eco" topic to champion, one that did not already have a bevy of strong grassroots voices to back it up, saw a need. Thus began her journey as the advocate for—and avid educator of—ecological wastewater recycling.
Steinfeld has now penned two other books, The Composting Toilet Book and Reusing the Resource: Adventures in Ecological Wastewater Recycling, co-authored with David Del Porto. In addition to writing, Steinfeld conducts workshops for the nonprofit Ecowaters, and promotes the use of urine-diverting toilets. If you consider that much of our toilet flushing is for what she calls "urine events," Steinfeld stresses that we are actually using good, clean drinking water for every flush. This wasted drinking water, now mixed with urine, is then flushed into wastewater treatment plants, and later discharged into our soil, groundwater, streams, lakes, rivers and seas, literally drowning them with nitrogen. One has to stop for a moment and question the logic of the system.
Urine-diverting toilets are perfect for those aware of the problem but faint of heart when it comes to peeing in something so gauche as, say, a mason jar. The urine can be diverted to a holding tank, where it sits for long enough to be rid of any potential, though unlikely, pathogens, before being utilized for gardening or farming purposes. According to Liquid Gold, during the course of a single year, Americans are literally pissing away enough nitrogen to fertilize almost 12 million acres of corn.
Steinfeld suggest three simple approaches to using urine. First, one can simply save it, dilute it 8-to-1 with water, and use it in the garden. Anyone who balks at this idea should look at the photos in the book, which demonstrate outstanding results with what I have come to think of as simply "urine farming."
Another possibility, one which Steinfeld herself is currently using, is to collect the urine and put it directly into the compost bin, thus fertilizing the soil as well as speeding up the composting process. Another choice, specifically useful if one has a urine-diverting toilet in place, is to send it directly out into an aerobic garden bed.
If these options sound too complicated, Steinfeld suggests just pouring it out evenly on the grass. As long as the ground is aerated, she assures, there won't be a smell; as for those brown patches we blame on the dogs, that's from peeing in one place over and over again.
While urine diversion may not have hit the mainstream just yet, the movement is out there and growing. For those new to the concept, consider participating in Pee on Earth Day, celebrated June 21 in the Northern Hemisphere, and Dec. 21 in the Southern.
While many Californians already feel comfortable with the old "if it's yellow let it mellow" adage, perhaps it's about time to take things a step further, and up the ante for Mother Earth.
For more information on Carol Steinfeld's books, visit www.carol-steinfeld.com.