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Cape Cod's 'power couple of pee-cycling' wants you to save that liquid gold

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Earle Barnhart and Hilda Maingay in their greenhouse, where three cubies are on show and available for purchase. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Earle Barnhart and Hilda Maingay in their greenhouse, where three cubies are on show and available for purchase. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

This is the second of a two-part series on addressing Cape Cod's worsening water pollution. Read the first part here.

Earle Barnhart and Hilda Maingay take sustainable living seriously. They grow almost all their own food, raise chickens on kitchen scraps, capture rainwater and rely on solar power in their energy-efficient home.

But recently they’ve got the most attention for their bathroom.

Barnhart and Maingay are known on Cape Cod as the power couple of pee-cycling.

Yes, they recycle their urine. And they want their neighbors in Falmouth to do the same. Pee contains abundant nitrogen and phosphorus — the same nutrients in fertilizer. All those vegetables in Barnhart and Maingay’s garden are grown on this “liquid gold.” That’s the way it’s supposed to work, said Barnhart.

“In nature, the animals eat the plants, and the waste from the animals goes back to the plants, and the nutrients go round and round,” he said. “Humans don't do that at all.”

What most humans in Falmouth — and most of Cape Cod — do is use septic tanks. The problem isn’t just wasted fertilizer; human pee is the primary cause of the Cape’s damaging wastewater pollution. In septic systems, human waste is flushed into a tank in the backyard. The solids settle to the bottom of the tank and the liquid leaches into the soil. That liquid is full of nutrients, which get into local bays and ponds, where they feed algae and invasive plants. The plants grow like crazy, sucking up all the oxygen in the water, killing fish and turning the bottom to muck. Now nearly all Cape Cod’s saltwater bays and about a third of its ponds are impacted.

Last year, Massachusetts passed new regulations requiring Cape Cod communities to clean up their wastewater pollution. So towns on the Cape are spending millions to install sewers and upgrade wastewater treatment plants. But what if there was a cheaper solution? A growing number of people say pee-cycling deserves a closer look.

“I think there's a lot of advantages,” said Brian Baumgaertel, director of Barnstable County's Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center, which has a whole research program devoted to urine diversion.

Urine diversion or pee-cycling typically entails using regular-looking toilets that have a special compartment to capture urine separately from other waste; the urine is then funneled into a tank and later picked up. Baumgaertel doesn’t think pee-cycling will solve all the Cape’s wastewater problems, but it could be an economical part of the solution.

Algae bloom in West Reservoir, Harwich, Massachusetts, on Aug. 21, 2023. (Courtesy Association to Preserve Cape Cod)
An algae bloom in West Reservoir in Harwich, Massachusetts, on Aug. 21, 2023. (Courtesy Association to Preserve Cape Cod)

There are many objections to urine diversion: it’s unproven on a large scale, Cape Cod doesn’t have infrastructure (yet) to manage all the residents’ pee, there are challenges with toilet supply and plumbing regulations, and  — perhaps most difficult to overcome  — the “ick” factor.  Most people are used to flushing their pee down the toilet and forgetting about it, and they’d like to keep it that way.

Hilda Maingay has little patience with any of these objections.

“We have to change, right? And we cannot have the climate change if we don't change,” she said. “And if a flush toilet is so important to people, they have to tell their kids that they prefer their flush toilet over their kids’ future. And that’s really how I feel.”

Are we wasting our wastewater?

Maingay and Barnhart began their pee-cycling journey in 2010. That year, an engineering firm proposed that Falmouth solve their wastewater problem with a massive sewer expansion plan. The $600 million price tag caught people’s attention.

"That's a huge amount of money for a town of 30,000 people,” Barnhart said. “So, we started studying alternatives.”

Barnhart and Maingay’s research led them to the Rich Earth Institute in Vermont, a nonprofit that researches urine diversion and recycles urine into fertilizer.

Rich Earth found that about 80% of the nitrogen and 55% of phosphorus in wastewater comes from pee. That means capturing the urine — and ideally converting it into fertilizer to be used elsewhere — could remove a majority of the nutrients polluting Cape Cod’s bays and ponds.

Brian Baumgaertel, Director of the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Brian Baumgaertel, Director of the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“You're taking a big chunk of the nitrogen and phosphorus out of the waste stream. And in a lot of cases, you're removing it entirely from whatever watershed you're talking about,” said Baumgaertel.

Recycling pee into fertilizer also offers climate benefits.

Making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer requires about 70% of the world’s ammonia; and making ammonia requires a lot of fossil fuel — about 2% of the world’s energy consumption according to the International Energy Agency. That adds up: synthetic fertilizer has a larger carbon dioxide footprint than the United Kingdom.

Why not use all that nitrogen in our pee, instead? According to the Rich Earth Institute, one adult produces about 125 gallons of urine each year. That means one year of American pee could replace 9 billion pounds of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

“I would argue that wastewater is a resource," said Baumgaertel. “Here in the United States, we're not very good at reusing this resource, but in other parts of the world, it's something that they wouldn't waste.”

“Do I lose a closet to a urinal?”

Inspired by their research, Barnhart and Maingay bought urine-diverting toilets for their home and became evangelists for pee-cycling. They even prototyped a urinal for home bathrooms — the “pee pod” — that folds discreetly into the wall. Kinda like a Murphy bed.

A wall mounted urinal on display at the Green Center in East Falmouth, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A wall mounted urinal on display at the Green Center in East Falmouth, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

(“If there's a urinal in the wall, most women will be really relieved,” said Maingay. That’s because in standard toilets, men’s peeing leads to splashing, “and it's almost always the women that clean up.”)

Maingay and Barnhart now give regular tours of their home for the pee-cycling curious. One day last fall more than a dozen people showed up.

The group crowded around the toilet — a brand called Separett — which looked pretty normal, except for the instruction sheet taped under the lid: “sit on seat to open chute.”

Here’s how it works. When a person sits on the toilet seat, a chute opens in the back of the bowl. Poop goes down the chute into sealed compost bins in the basement. Urine goes down a separate chute in the front of the bowl and into a 100-gallon storage tank in the basement.

“You don't have to think about it. The toilet is designed to work,” said Maingay. “It never fails.”

We could implement urine diversion today by everybody just saying, ‘OK, let's just pee in a bottle and collect it. It wouldn't be pretty, of course.

Malcolm Donald, Falmouth Town Meeting member

The whole system cost about $6,000 to install, making it relatively cheap compared to sewers or advanced septic. There are also cheaper urine-diverting toilets that skip the poop-composting part, like the Wostman eco-toilets.  None of these are made by major American companies, however, and can be difficult to find in the U.S. And because they're so novel, it's hard to find a plumber to install them, said Falmouth resident and urine-diversion advocate Kim Comart.

'They're actually not approved by hardly any plumbing board anywhere in the United States," said Comart, who founded the nonprofit Falmouth Pond Coalition. His brand-new urine diverting toilet from Sweden is sitting unused in his shed, "because I'm not allowed to install it legally." (He said that some plumbers are willing to bend the law, but he's taking the good-citizen route and advocating to change the regulations.)

For those who want faster, cheaper pee-cycling, there’s a portable urinal called a “Cubie” that costs less than a hundred bucks. It’s basically a plastic jug with a pipe and a funnel sticking out from the top. Maingay and Barnhart had one of those in their bathroom, too, for those who prefer to do their business standing up.

A composting toilet, which separates urine from other material, and a cubie unisex urinal, in the bathroom at the Green Center in East Falmouth, Mass.
A composting toilet, which separates urine from other material, and a cubie unisex urinal, in the bathroom at the Green Center in East Falmouth, Mass." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Barnhart and Maingay use their pee to fertilize their plants, which can be done without nitrogen leaching into the groundwater. The trick is to apply the most urine during the plants’ most vigorous growth, according to the Rich Earth Institute’s very detailed guidelines. A 10-by-10 foot vegetable garden can absorb about 3.5 to 5.5 gallons of pee during a growing season, depending on your local climate and what you're growing.

People who prefer not to sprinkle their tinkle on their flowers can have their urine tanks pumped. There isn’t widespread infrastructure for this on Cape Cod (yet) so it’s not clear how much pumping will cost, but some haulers will do it for $100 a year.

“We could implement urine diversion today by everybody just saying, ‘OK, let's just pee in a bottle and collect it,’ ” said Malcolm Donald, a Falmouth resident and Town Meeting member who is encouraging the town to take a serious look at pee-cycling. “It wouldn't be pretty, of course — we don't have the infrastructure — but it's something that could be done.”

Donald is already pee-cycling — “I've been peeing outside for a couple of years, much to my wife's chagrin,” he said — and for the last few months he's been collecting his urine in a Cubie and donating it to MASSTC's research program.

He acknowledges that many people find the whole idea “gross.”

“Next time you're at a cocktail party, start talking about urine diversion and you can see the reaction on people,” he said.

Three cubies, the
Three cubies, the "least expensive, quickest way to divert urine," at the Green Center in East Falmouth, (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Even people who are open to the idea have concerns about how the whole system could work.

One man on the tour of Barnhart and Maingay’s home, Rob Pacheco of Falmouth, thought the whole setup was interesting, but wasn’t quite ready to implement it in his house.

“[I’m] just not sure how to install everything,” he said. “Do I lose a closet to a urinal?”

Toby and Rich Stomberg, who own a home in Eastham, were more enthusiastic.

“It's such an amazing solution,” said Toby, “So for us, it's just taking the time to get it going in our own home. And then if that sort of spreads to our neighbors, well, that would be really nice.”

If a flush toilet is so important to people, they have to tell their kids that they prefer their flush toilet over their kids’ future. And that’s really how I feel.

Hilda Maingay

“I’d also point out that we have solar panels on our roof, and we got lots of money back from the government that really made it easy for us to do that,” Rich said. “And the government is not supporting this.”

That may change, at least in Falmouth. In November, the town approved initial funding to explore a urine diversion pilot project for three years in at least 50 homes. According to Bryan Horsley, who oversees urine diversion research at the septic test center, more than 100 people have already expressed interest in participating. The town plans to vote on further funding in April and could move forward on the full project this spring. If that happens, it'll be the first project of its kind in the country.

Kim Comart, whose group is advocating for the Falmouth pilot project, says that the town is unlikely to hit its state-mandated cleanup targets with sewers and advanced-septic alone, and needs to consider all possible strategies, including urine diversion.

"Let's consider all technologies as tools in the toolbox," he said. "Falmouth has the opportunity to be a leader."

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The documentary short was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect cost for Barnhart and Maingay's system. The post has been updated. We regret the error.

This segment aired on February 13, 2024.

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