Ann Arbor, Mich. ( Associated Press) — A pair of University of Michigan researchers are pouring “pee” into peonies.
Rather, they are peeing on the peon.
Environmental engineering professors Nancy Love and Christa Wigginton are regular visitors to the Ann Arbor School’s Nichols Arboretum, where they have been applying urine-based fertilizer to heirloom peony beds before the flowers’ annual spring blooms.
It is part of an effort to educate the public about his research showing that applying nutrient-rich urine-derived fertilizer can have environmental and economic benefits.
“At first, we thought people might hesitate. You know, it might be weird. But we’ve really experienced very little of that attitude,” Wigginton said. “In general, people think it Funny at first, but then they understand why we’re doing this and they support it.”
Love is a co-author of a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, which found that diversion and recycling of urine resulted in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and energy.
Urine contains essential nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus and has been used as a crop fertilizer for thousands of years.
Love said collecting human urine and using it to make renewable fertilizer — as part of what she calls a “circular economy of nutrients” — would promote greater environmental sustainability.
Think of it not so much as recycling, but “pee-cycling,” Wigginton said.
“We were looking for words that would take hold but the thoughts would be complete, and ‘pee-cycling’ seems to be one that has stuck,” she said.
As part of a $3 million grant provided by the National Science Foundation in 2016, Love and Wigginton are not only testing advanced urine-treatment methods, but improving people’s attitudes about the use of urine-derived fertilizers. Also checking.
That’s what brought them to the much-loved campus Peony Garden, which includes more than 270 historic cultivated varieties from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, representing American, Canadian and European peonies of the time. The garden is filled with about 800 peonies and 10,000 flowers at maximum bloom.
Love and Wigginton plan to spend weekends in May and June interacting with visitors. An important lesson they learned is about the purity of language.
“We’ve used the word, ‘pee on the peony.’ And then it takes people’s attention and then we can talk to them about nutrient flow and nutrient efficiency in our communities being more sustainable,” Love said. “It turns out that some people thought it was permissible to leave their drawers and pee on the peon.
“So, this year, we’re going to use ‘peonies for pee’ and hope we don’t have that confusion.”
The urine-derived fertilizer researchers are using these days originated in Vermont. But if everything goes according to plan, they will give some locally sourced fertilizer next year.
A split-bowl toilet in a campus engineering building is designed to send solid waste to a treatment plant, while moving urine to a holding tank below. Urine drawn from toilets and urinals was to be treated and eventually used to make fertilizer, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the school to call off collection efforts.
Meanwhile, the facility is undergoing an upgrade to its freeze concentrator and adding a new, more energy-efficient pasteurizer developed by the Vermont-based Rich Earth Institute.
“The whole idea is cycling within a community, so moving towards that we want to take the urine from this community and apply it within this community,” Wigginton said.