A piece of do-it-yourself signage that read "Liquid Gold" in a homemade scrawl mystified many residents in a quiet Berkeley neighborhood one recent Saturday morning. People on mountain bikes slowed down to read the sign and wonder. Was it a workshop on alchemy? Would a modern-day Merlin be conjuring up precious metals?
Two teenaged African-American boys, their curiosity piqued and perhaps in search of a little homemade bling, wandered into the vast backyard where the workshop was being held. They found a table offering books for sale and people -- hippies, mostly -- wandering around admiring the verdant garden and a strange-looking Italian toilet. The literature promised that this Euro crapper would turn ordinary, run-of-the-mill pee into nutrient-rich mulch that will soon make your garden the envy of the neighborhood.
The boys asked Nik Bertulis, a member of Green Fairy Farm and one of the speakers, just what exactly was going on. Could they possibly get in on some of the Liquid Gold action? And there it was, in the most unlikely place: dwelling inside an old Odwalla bottle. The all-too-familiar dull-gold fluid shone in the yellow sunlight.
Bertulis proudly hoisted the bottle as if it was the Holy Grail. "This is what the class is about!" he exclaimed to the puzzled and now very afraid teenagers. "It's about pee!" The boys slowly backed out of the yard, as if not to startle the hella wack white folk.
The idea that pee is as precious as gold does at first seem hella wack, not to mention highly disagreeable. So the notion of using it in your vegetable garden seems particularly unappealing. "Pee on my lettuce? Ewwww!"
But when you think about it, how is using pee any worse than the fertilizers and chemical soil supplements we already use? And indeed, everyone who was gathered at Green Fairy Farm had an unquenchable thirst to learn how to use that special bodily fluid as a gardening aid. But first, there were the pee-pee jokes to get through.
"Are we going to be hearing a lot of double entendres about pee?" asked someone there for the class. He sounded mad, maybe even a little ... pissed. The thirty or so people assembled in the garage didn't know it at the time, but they were about to hear a buttload of double entendres about pee and -- get this, dear readers -- maybe even poo.
Ann Steinfeld, author and good-natured pee gardening expert, rose to the occasion. "Maybe we should get our pee jokes out of the way now," she suggested. "And yes, I do know my shit." Even before the class started, the hilarity was flowing like a rushing, alpine waterfall in need of an outlet.
Then it was time for the serious stuff: the lecture and slide show. Everyone grabbed handouts that explained the pros and cons of growing plants with urine. Before the talk began, Steinfeld asked everyone in the class to introduce themselves and to give a brief synopsis of why they were attending. There were at least two engineers who were putting in plumbing systems in Third World countries, and several local gardeners who just wanted to know how to grow a better tomato. One woman was there because she was worried about her husband peeing on the landscaping and wanted to know if that was okay. (Answer: Yes, if you don't pee in the same spot all the time; that's why animals ruin gardens.)
The handout said Americans excrete ninety million gallons of pee a year, which is enough to fertilize 31,962 acres of corn. Not only is pee in abundant supply, but nutrient-rich First World urine is roughly 90 percent nitrogen, which Steinfeld said is comparable to chemical fertilizers. Store-bought fertilizer is not only expensive, she noted, but bad for the planet.
"Using urine really helps to take a load off the environment," said Steinfeld, straining to keep a straight face. "Americans eat more nutrients than we actually need. Pee is essentially salty nitrogen water. If I had bacon and eggs in the morning and then if I had it four more times during the day, my pee would have a lot of nitrogen in it."
So there you have it: The Atkins diet is good for the planet.
Naturally, people had questions about the health risks of eating vegetables and fruit grown with pee. Unlike feces, which are loaded with toxins from our bodies, pee is usually sterile. Several people asked about hepatitis, and indeed, hepatitis A is transmitted via feces. But Steinfeld pointed out that you needn't worry about giving yourself a disease you already have. Still, she noted that it's always a good idea to keep pee quarantined for at least six weeks if it's not your own; that kills off the germs and bacteria. And definitely don't use it if you know that the person who donated it is sick.
"There are a lot of taboos about excreta," she agreed. The truth is, as gnarly as it seems, people have long used urine either as a health drink or as an ingredient in douches, footbaths, gargles, or drops for the ears and eyes.
There are a variety of ways to harvest the precious brine. The cheapest and easiest way is to let your cup runneth over, so to speak, and just throw the stuff in the garden. But many pee farmers like to save theirs in a bottle or a tank. Make sure that it's an airtight container, however, or the valuable nitrogen will escape.
Although it's okay to use pee directly, many pee farmers prefer to dilute it first because it eliminates the stink. The standard ratio is one cup of pee to eight cups of water.
Part of the impetus behind using urine in farming is the desire to protect coastal waters from sewage that produces harmful algae blooms, a huge threat to marine life. The blooms occur when there is too much nitrogen in water: Algae love nitrogen-rich waters and they prevent other plants and aquatic life from thriving.
Ever since those thoughtful and inventive Scandinavians -- the Swedes especially -- realized that their waters were endangered by sewage, they have been on the cutting edge of toilet technology. During the '70s, there was a line of Swedish toilets called the "Destroylet." These toilets were supposed to be the wave of the future. Instead of using water to flush waste, the toilets burned everything. After a few months, the charred waste made very nice compost. (Food Fetish knows this from experience, because her hippie mom had one. PS: The commodes are very nice and toasty on a cold winter's day.)
Destroylets never really caught on, but composting or drying toilets are still around, especially in areas where it's impossible to put in a septic tank. If you are the crafty sort who loves projects, there are many books that tell you how to create your own pee-salvaging toilet. There are also toilets that will burn or dry your waste. The people at Green Fairy Farm hope these will one day be used by the average American. "The way to do that is to make it seem sexy," Bertulis said. "Then the middle class will go for it."
One of the best ways to use urine as a fertilizer is to mix it with "graywater," waste water recycled from bathwater or dishwater. Bertulis showed a toilet he developed that unites urine and graywater. The water is packed with nutrients (most soap remnants are fine), and makes an excellent compost where permitted by law (check your county government for details). His device consisted of a little sink hoisted above a urinal. After peeing, you wash your hands and the graywater and urine collect in a tank. Then the waste is diverted into a compost pile. After composting, it's into the garden. Voilà!
People clustered around to look at his homemade contraption. "This one is for guys," Bertulis said apologetically. "There's another toilet for women if anyone needs to use it."
It seems that the forty-niners of old California were mistaken. The hills weren't the only place where there was gold.
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