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Down to Earth

'Peecyling': Is urine the new liquid gold?

Every year, the average person produces 500 litres of urine, which in fact contains compounds such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Every year, the average person produces 500 litres of urine, which in fact contains compounds such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. © FRANCE 24
By: Mairead DUNDAS Follow | Valérie DEKIMPE | Pierre LEMARINIER | Pierre COLLET | Julia GUGGENHEIM | Marie-Claire IDE | Clémence WALLER
10 min

Every day, we produce large quantities of urine, at no cost. So instead of flushing it down the toilet, what if it was transformed into something useful? The Down to Earth team takes a closer look.

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Every year, the average person produces 500 litres of urine, enough to fill three bathtubs. Although our bodily fluids contain valuable resources, this urine is mixed with other materials and emptied down the drain.

According to the start-up Ecosec, the key to tapping into urine's potential starts with collection. Based in Montpelier, the company has developed a dry toilet which separates our bodily flows, with faeces being sent to one side and urine to the other.

''Everyone understands that if you sort aluminium on one side, glass on the other or paper, plastic and compostable materials, it's much easier to recycle downstream. It's exactly the same for flows inside the home," remarks Benjamin Clouet, co-founder of Ecosec.

Urine is made up of 95 percent water as well as other compounds such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, all of which help plants grow.  They are known as the "Big 3" primary nutrients used to produce synthetic fertilisers, a process that is both expensive and polluting.

'Urine does the same job as the fertilisers we use next to it'

When Ecosec was looking for an experimentation site, Bruno Le Breton quickly agreed to offer his land.

Two years ago he replaced traditional fertilisers with urine on a small portion of his vines at the Domaine de la Jasse in Combaillaux in the south of France.

''Initial tests have shown that after it's applied, there are no flies, there's no smell, there's nothing off-putting and the result on the vines is positive because we see no change. Urine does the same job as the fertilisers we use next to it,'' Le Breton explains.

The grapes exposed to urine using a drip irrigation system have been harvested and analysed, with nothing unusual detected.

Le Breton believes the main obstacle to the idea of urine as a fertiliser is the somewhat immature relationship people have with their own excrement. ''To associate urine with wine, which is a very noble product, demands a shortcut that is complicated in people's minds," he adds.

Using urine to grow bacteria

Another challenge when using urine in agriculture is the quantity needed for large-scale farming, according to Michael Roes from Toopi Organics.

For example, each hectare of a wheat field would need 30,000 litres of urine per year. It also requires adapted equipment, a lot of time and various supplies, notably petrol.

Toopi Organics is instead using urine to grow bacteria that is useful to plants. Certain bacteria can help plants access phosphorus in the soil. Other bacteria fix nitrogen in the atmosphere and release it directly into the soil.

Such products already exist on the market but are expensive. Roes says his company's innovation using urine can lower the price from €50 per litre to €0.30 per litre, for the same product.

In the bigger picture it also means reducing society's dependence on fossil fuels, which will eventually run out one day.

"Our strategy is that we don't wait until we no longer have a choice, and instead try to use products that are more efficient than mineral fertilisers and are available immediately," Roes concludes.

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