Loughlin Joseph

The urine economy

The future smart city? Originally published May 01, 2018.

for School of Visual Arts

Can you imagine a future New York in which urine is widely and maybe even exclusively used as a source of electrical power and agricultural fertilizer? Maybe not. We have flush toilets and sewage treatment plants for that, don’t we? Yet, in places like Uganda and Madagascar, where the sanitation infrastructure that New York enjoys will likely never be fully deployed, experiments on how to recycle human waste in a decentralized manner are slowly taking shape through projects called Urine-tricity and the Loowatt, respectively.

On a morning Skype call in February 2018, Fernanda Costa, the lead designer at Loowatt, explained the inner workings of this new toilet design and why it’s sorely needed. In rapid-fire speech, she said, ‘’the flush toilet is not an option for 2.6 billion people, we are looking at creative ways to approach sanitation and produce value out of waste through the patented biofilm and exploiting anaerobic digestion’. 

These new designs are showing a proof of concept that there is more than one way to think about urban sanitation. This experimentation is also beginning to disrupt the global primacy of the wet toilet and all its associated infrastructure. It is providing a wormhole that can allow developing cities, like Kampala, to leapfrog over existing means and methods of approaching urban hygiene, and to capitalize on new technologies that can allow the recycling of urine (and feces) into productive inputs. And all this is without the aid of a complex centralized sanitation system. While there may not seem to be an urgent need to recycle feces and urine in a city like New York, these examples can be useful to create a blueprint for the ‘’smart’’ city of the future. 

In an anonymous office building in midtown Manhattan, Nancy Anderson, previously an environmental consultant with the Department of Environmental Protection, the governing body that oversees sanitation, recounts the history of New York’s sanitation infrastructure. It was only in 1842 that New York City began to bring clean water into the city and pipe all of the human waste out from each building. The catalyst for this huge investment was born from the epidemics of typhoid and cholera. Human excrement was contaminating drinking water and causing unprecedented levels of illness among the working population. 

New York began to remove waste from all buildings and pipe it out to the Hudson River or the New York Harbour. Anderson emphasizes that ‘’through dumping waste into moving water that the problem would just be diluted, literally and figuratively, and go away.’’ Therefore, it is through the act of design that excreta is flushed out of sight and mind and also, more significantly, out of cultural production. For urine to come out of the obscurity, not only does the language around bodily waste needs to be addressed first as it is laden with a thick layer of ignominy but a future “smart” city – as in truly intelligent – could redefine the beliefs of what is considered dirty and what it means to be clean.

Process layout of a typical New York City wastewater treatment plant, City of New York

This internalized set of customs often are revealed and imparted when children are potty trained. But, while still in diapers, it seems that baby excrement, as opposed to adult excrement, is not offensive. Recently, on a Whatsapp feed shared with family, I received a very explicit image. My sister sent a picture showing a shiny metallic wrapper that she dug out of my baby niece’s droppings. In full graphic display on my phone’s screen was a dirty diaper and next to it the excavated foreign object that looked like the corner of a potato chip bag. It seemed perfectly normal to receive this image of my niece’s bowel movements, but rarely does any adult member in my family share anything about their own feces with such candor and level of detail. 

We talk about going for number 1 or number 2 and some other euphemisms to stand in for the real thing but, rarely do we engage openly about our bodily excretions. We are well adapted to the convenience that the flush toilet affords. The flush system’s functionality is deeply satisfying because it removes a perceived burden of having to handle the substances ourselves. While basking in this luxury, there is a marked dissociation from the fact that we are animals embedded into a complex set of Earthly relationships. In a phone conversation with David-Waltner Toews, author of the book titled The Origin of Feces, he connects human biological functions with a larger external logic. ‘’Plants die and animals eat them, and animals poop and pee and it goes in the ground and other animals, bacteria and insects eat that… There is a web of life.’’, says Waltner-Toews

Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.  – R. Buckminster Fuller

So, perhaps the first step in elevating urine to the status it deserves is to recognize that in cities, we are disconnected from the “web of life”, and maybe this is worth investigating if we are to have a more productive relationship with so-called waste. 

Much of the discussion with regard reclaiming waste has been focused on excrement, which has a long history of being used in agriculture, where it has economic value, and for which there is a variety of technical solutions (composting, biogas generation) readily available. What is less often addressed – both technologically and socially – is how to deal with urine, which is richer in important minerals than excrement. And when, for instance, drought-plagued cities have suggested that wastewater and urine be recycled into potable water, citizens almost invariably recoil in disgust. 

Instead of pretending that urine just disappears, it may be a fruitful exercise to imagine a city where its potential is tapped for immediate use. This is not something entirely new. There is precedent of using urine as a potent fertilizer to grow plants. Lucius Columella, a prominent writer on agriculture in ancient Rome, wrote a treatisewhere he directed farmers to ‘’moisten the roots with sow-dung and human ordure and stale urine’’ in order to obtain the juiciest pomegranates. Farmers in the 1700s would exchange vegetables for vats of urine produced in the more densely populated Edo, present-day Tokyo. Merchants quickly realized the monetary value of urine and began to move away from just bartering for vegetables and started asking farmers for silver coins for the exchange. 

In the United States, there is a fledgling spotlight on urine as an organic and easily manufactured fertilizer. The Rich Earth Institute in Vermont, for instance, is researching how urine can be diverted for use in large scale agriculture. Due to the decline in phosphate reserves, a key ingredient in soil fertilizer and in urine, this research is particularly relevant. One of their key initiatives is to develop and deploy urine diverting toilets.

While the functionality of these types of toilet is being altered to perform differently, the taboo towards waste as embodied by the toilet design remains intact. It’s still the white curvy porcelain fixture but, most significantly, this version has renovated guts. Urine flows into a separate interior basin so that it is isolated from feces. Then, the collected urine is pasteurized so that it can become a viable fertilizer for commercial  farming. Perhaps not changing the toilet’s exterior form but only its interior structure is the nudge needed to spark this conversation. 

Over a morning call, Kim Nace, co-founder of the Rich Earth Institute in Vermont, is enthusiastic about recycling urine. She explained that unfortunately a lot of the innovation around these diverting toilets is not happening in the United-States. According to Nace, mass toilet manufacturers like Kohler will only begin to sell these if they can have a guaranteed at least 5000 units sold every month. This type of volume requires a larger set of changes within the urban infrastructure and these changes are still in a distant, but hopeful, future. The institute’s immediate focus is on collecting urine from temporary facilities installed at festivals and more ambitiously from the waterless urinals large public institutions, like airports. This type of intervention would be require a more localized and easier to achieve. 

Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar

On the other side of the world, Karsten Gjefle, the founder of Uganda-based Sustainable Sanitation, is also looking at ways that urine can be used as fertilizer. He is acutely responding to a lack of adequate means of dealing with waste safely in dense living conditions. This not dissimilar to the state of cities like New York, Chicago or London in the mid-19th century, but in this part of the world, there won’t be one blanket solution. 

His design starts with an improvised or hacked artifact. The urine is collected in yellow water jerry cans which are ubiquitous in Kampala. The opening of the can is outfitted with a white basin that resembles a bike seat. This artifact is just one piece of a full urban hygiene service where clean jerry cans are delivered to residents living in informal settlements. Once these cans are filled with urine, a vehicle picks these up and delivers the collected urine to local farmers for their crops. In a Skype interview, he explained that their ‘’concept was to create products and services that were appealable’’ to slum dwellers and respond to their hygiene and personal safety needs. 

Gjfle’s aim is manifold. His intentions are to alleviate the strain on the limited existing facilities, provide a safer environment for women to urinate – women in urban slums and rural areas face an increased risk of assault when using public facilities at night – and supply agricultural lands with organic fertilizer. The project’s focus is not just on the jerry can but on all of the relationships that create a closed loop sanitation system. Gjfle has been able to prototype the jerry cans but unable to get the pickup service off the ground mainly due to a lack of funding. Nonetheless, this project begins to reimagine urban hygiene holistically and as a process that encompasses body “waste” to soil enhancement for food crops. 

Urine can also be converted source of electrical energy through the use of microbial fuel cells. The BioEnergy Centre at the University of West London Bristol is conducting pioneering research on how to exploit the natural metabolic processes of electrogenic bacteria like geobacter and shewanella. These microbes eat nutrients in urine and at the end of their digestive process release electrons. These are captured and harnessed by the microbial fuel cells (like a battery) to create electrical power.

In fall 2017, the first field trial of the Urine-tricity Pee Power project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was implemented at the Sesame Girl’s School in southern Uganda. Because the students’ previous sanitation area was not lit, the research team from BioEnergy retrofitted the existing facilities with a pipe that helped to divert urine into a separate newly-built holding tank.

The collected urine is fed into an eclectic, yet sophisticated, assemblage of several plastic bins holding several hundred microbial fuel cells connected to with numerous wires to other bins holding smaller amounts of urine fed in spurts from the larger holding tank. This pieced together artifact was used to to light up the building with the bathroom facilities and provided a safer environments for the students.

This project serves as a proof that in places where there is no public and integrated sanitation infrastructure, human excrement is not obsolete, but rather, a clean source of fuel that can generate power. The cost of materials to build these fuel cells are still prohibitive and there are technical issues still preventing this to be used at a large scale. Still, the trajectory of this technology is promising for cities as the microbial fuel cells become more powerful as they are stacked and by design scalable for larger projects.

On a call with Tosin Obata, a senior researcher at the BioEnergy Center, he sums up the value of this technology neatly when he said “using urine means we will never run out of fuel for our system.” It would be staggeringly impressive to see a whole city powered on the collected pee of thousands if not millions of people and shift the conversation of what it means to be intelligently sustainable. 

Fast forward to the year 2050, many cities will have become “smart”. If modeled after Sidewalk Lab’s Quayside project in Toronto, autonomous cars will roam the streets (and maybe even fly overhead?), robots will collect and carry out household trash, modular buildings will expand as needed and sensors will be well integrated in all parts of urban life. Maybe verging on the Orwellian, but this version of the smart city will be sentient to the needs of its inhabitants. Sensors collecting data will be able to inform on all kinds of decisions from finding available and open parking space to automatically regulating building temperatures.

And, more significantly to the smart city core principles, the data will be a real-time supply of information for governments to use in crafting more accurate urban design policy. In an email exchange with Sidewalk Lab’s Director of Sustainability, Charlotte Matthews, she confirms that while she is interested in phosphate recovery in urine, sanitation infrastructure is not included yet in the concepting of the Toronto smart city project. Will smart city design in general completely overlook sanitation and new ways of engaging urban hygiene? This is perhaps a missed opportunity to radically redefine what “smart” city means in the future. 

In New York City, there are reasons to take this question seriously: consider that New York, in an effort to conserve water and not overwhelm the existing sanitation system, has embarked on a campaign called ‘’Wait…’’ . This campaign encourages residents to conserve water during rain storms by various means including not flushing the toilet. When the 14 wastewater treatment plants in New York get inundated with excess water from flushing and rainfall, untreated sewage flows directly into the surrounding rivers. This wreaks ecological havoc and creates a potential threat to public health and is decidedly not ‘smart’.

Can urban hygiene infrastructure possibly be re-imagined to include the idea that human excrement can indeed be a source of value? Urine in its natural state is a relatively easier substance to manipulate and recycle into fuel, fertilizer or even drinking water. In the United-States, innovative initiatives around urine are barely nascent. But, notably, governmental institutions such as NASA recycle urine into drinking water using a device called the Urine Processor Assembly (UPA). On space crafts, the UPA recycles urine to produce potable water for the astronauts onboard. In 2015, American astronaut Scott Kelly drank 730 L of his recycled urine and sweat when he spent a little over eleven months in space.

There is sufficient technical knowledge on creating an afterlife for urine and other bodily excretions. However, what is stunting the ability to embrace urine as a contender for energy production is our deeply held beliefs around cleanliness and hygiene. The frumpy friend in the 2011 movie Bridesmaids doesn’t make it to the toilet but has to relieve herself in the bathroom sink. This now iconic diarrhea scene depicts how having to urgently defecate is both a source of laughter, shame and a mark of an uncultured person. The source of comedy is in the poking at the taboo nature of human excrement. 

The general disgust around bodily excretions is impregnated into the foundation of modern design tenets. While scientists and engineers can feasibly develop the technological innovations of how to pragmatically recycle large volumes of urine, it is the designers who can reshape the negative lens through which urine is viewed. Design can be a form of activism in that while not looking to completely overthrow a given framework, it can surgically intervene to help reveal positive alternatives that are potentially superior to the status quo. Here, design is a tool to get into the areas of a cultural mindset that are sometimes more difficult to access.

Photo by Lazar Gugleta

Today, the urine story begins with a white, legless, organically-shaped porcelain chair. This immovable piece of functional furniture, installed in every New York City home, office, civic building, is the toilet. It is the physical manifestation that has baked into its form and function all of the prevalent beliefs around human waste. In 1966, anthropologist Mary Douglas published a book titled Purity and Danger in which she positioned taboos as a community wide complicity not rooted in fear as the term may suggest. Rather, they stem from a desire to create order and this is in alignment with modernist design principles.

Human waste or ‘dirt’ is disorder and does not fit into the ethos of modernism. This call for ordering the world is powerful as it defines the relationships we have with our bodies and the material world. The toilet in its form and function is the most visible artifact in a long chain of design moves that help to order a modern city but not necessarily a smart one. 

As modernist design principles started to infiltrate the mainstream of architectural building in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it has had the sustained the attention of architects such as Adolf Loos, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. This is likely because the toilet is most emblematic artifact in arsenal of modern design. Fittingly, for 2014 Venice Biennale, curator Rem Koolhaas set out to explore ubiquitous vernacular architectural elements set against the backdrop of globalization. Of the fifteen elements investigated, including floors, walls and doors, the toilet was unexpectedly included as a primordial element of modern architecture. Since its rise to prominence, it became a permanent feature in modern spaces. It’s been an object of fascination and Koolhaas, in the booklet called Toilet, calls it the ‘’fundamental zone of interaction, on the most intimate level, between humans and architecture.’’ 

This “zone of interaction” is precisely the area that merits some attention. While the activity in this zone is obvious, toilets are used by humans five to six times a day to defecate and urinate, they don’t betray the larger social context of why we discard our excreta in the way we do. Using the toilet is as automated a routine as getting water from the kitchen faucet, it is normalized and taken for granted. Water helps to mask waste and make it easier for it to slip away into an anonymous pipe. As Douglas points out, nothing that was before remains after immersion in water, not an outline, not a sign or an event. ‘’Immersion in water is death at the cosmic level. Water possesses the power of purifying, or regenerating of giving new birth.’’

Every single part of the Earth reacts with every other part. It’s one thing.” –Karen Nyberg, NASA Astronaut

In the spirit of regeneration and rebirth, there is a ripe opportunity to demystify the smart in smart city. Ioannis Ieropoulos, founder of the BioEnergy Lab at the University of West London Bristol, on a phone call from his research lab in Bristol rightly says, ‘’if we want to be truly smart, we need to look at alternative means to generate energy in [a] city. We need hybrid sources and exploit natural renewables’’. Instead of the ‘’smart’’ in smart city signifying a shallow trope around progress through technological determinism, it can become a rallying cry for design activism related to an awareness of bodily excretions, namely urine, and how these can be put into productive use.

By 2050, city-living will be the prevalent condition in which humans will co-exist. The expression of urban settlements will not be homogeneous and each local condition will have its own set of virtues and shortcomings. But all cities can potentially adopt the idea of the urine economy. It is just a universal proposition that can be implemented in all cities but likely in varying capacities and arrangements. This also allows for a reconsideration of the flush toilet hegemony. Instead of conceding to a design for taboo, a smart solution could provide means to live in better harmony with our organic biological systems. Why live in manufactured clean and sterile conditions which are energy intensive and in part mandated by Modernism, when we can create a whole new type of smart city powered by pee?

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