The Day May Come When PROs Turn Urine Into Cash

The Day May Come When PROs Turn Urine Into Cash

Karleen Kos is executive director of the Portable Sanitation Association International. She may be reached at karleenk@psai.org or 952/854-8300.

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Did you know that urine diversion is going on all over the world? From Vermont to Europe and Africa, experts and entrepreneurs are exploring the business opportunities, sanitation implications, and ecological benefits of separating urine at the source. There’s even an annual urine reclamation “summit meeting” each summer. There, researchers and business owners gather to talk about urine and its uses.

The Rich Earth Institute, a nonprofit organization that engages in research, education and technological innovation to advance the use of human waste as a resource hosts the annual Urine Diversion Summit in Brattleboro, Vermont, each August. More than 40 people attended the conference. It focused on technical innovations, regulatory and policy challenges, economic implications, social barriers, and environmental impacts associated with the current process of waste disposal at publicly owned treatment works and — more importantly — the possibilities involved with reclaiming urine as a distinct resource.

During the two-day conference, Rich Earth Institute staff provided a tour of their urine nutrient reclamation projects. A dozen presenters with expertise ranging from chemistry and business development to farming and marketing talked about various aspects of waste disposal and reclamation in western markets. I, too, gave a short talk about the work of the PSAI in helping develop new international standards that may play a role in the long-term viability of business strategies involving urine reclamation.

So what is the “short and sweet” summary of the business environment as it pertains to urine reclamation? Here are my observations: 

• Turning waste into a resource from which money can be made or saved — rather than an expense to be borne — is a big theme around the world.

• Reclaiming waste is not an isolated or crackpot idea. The same concept was on full display in South Africa when I visited there in June 2017, and experts from around the world were discussing it at our meeting of the International Organization for Standardization. It’s becoming a “thing” — and one that could present portable sanitation operators and suppliers with opportunities for saving or making money in the years to come.

• As of now, the state of the research and experimental approaches are “not ready for prime time.” On the technology side of things, equipment solutions are needed that would allow urine to be easily diverted at the site of its production. On the business side of things, the full value chain needs to be more fully developed. When I speak to knowledgeable people who are working hard to monetize urine, I ask, “If a portable restroom operator had 500 gallons of reclaimed urine every day, where’s the market for it?” Right now, the answer isn’t really there for urban areas. Even in rural areas, regulations would need to be rewritten in some states to accommodate the use of urine as fertilizer.

In short, over the next few years, smart portable sanitation professionals will be paying attention as new ways of turning waste into cash find their way into the market. Things that are currently in development will come to fruition. The kinks will be worked out of concepts being tested, and portable sanitation professionals will have options for how they deal with the waste they pump from their units — especially if they separate urine at the source. 

Whatever happens, you can be sure the PSAI will be there. Urine luck!



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