These porta-potties come with a docent

The Greenfield Recorder, August 21, 2017, by Richie Davis

ORANGE — There are lots of drinks at “the festival that stinks.

And where does that lead?

At the Garlic and Arts Festival, it leads to minding your cues and pees.

The cues at the 19th annual festival — which runs this year Sept. 23 and 24 — remind the thousands of attendees who descend on the 128-acre farm to recycle, reduce and reuse and to live more sustainably. So every plate, cup, utensil and all food waste are recycled and composted, and solar power helps provide not only the locally grown food, but power for the festival’s sound system as well.

The pees will be recycled, too, this year.

A large-scale “urine diversion project” will be set up in collaboration with Brattleboro, Vt.-based Rich Earth Institute. The volunteer festival committee plans to oversee collection and pasteurization testing of what’s expected to be 1,000 to 1,200 gallons of urine directly on Dorothy Forster’s hayfields, where the festival is held.

It’s expected to be “the largest known event to divert and collect urine from thousands of festival attendees through specially retrofitted port-a-potties!” according to festival originator Deborah Habib of Seeds of Solidarity Farm, who hopes it will be “a model of truly local, organic fertilizer and environmental sustainability.”

The festival last year featured a “portal to the future” to highlight the ways that “art, food, small-scale farming, renewable energy, care for the land and hand skills all contribute to community building and local resilience.” This year, it will showcase a 6-foot diameter globe made by the festival committee on which people can stick notes conveying their feelings about the planet and their hopes and concerns for its future.

The chance to be a “pee-cycler” means there will be “toilet docents” to explain to people what’s going on with the urine-diverting porta-potties supplied by Rich Earth Institute, according to festival committee member Bruce Scherer, who first became interested in reusing the resource, rich in phosphorous and nitrogen, about half a dozen years ago at a Cape Cod conference on the problem of nitrogen loading of groundwater.

Diverting urine’s nitrogen and phosphorous can be a way of “closing the loop,” to reduce use of petroleum-based fertilizers as well as mining for phosphorous, says Scherer, who helps run Little White Goat Dairy.

In this case, the urine will be diverted to a large tank on site and then to Rich Earth Institute’s mobile pasteurizer to destroy any pathogens before it is applied to the fields after the festival is over. Application must be made at agriculturally appropriate levels, as specified in the state Department of Agricultural Resources waiver from a discharge permit requirement.

It’s a way for Garlic and Arts, which already reduced its waste by an estimated 97 to 98 percent, to help the planet.

“The whole idea is resource recovery,” said Scherer. “I don’t think we’re going to save the world by diverting 1,000 gallons of pee. The idea is that we’re coming full circle in recycling what’s typically thought of as waste products. If it’s all getting flushed down the toilet, the ocean’s downstream of everything … We want to make people aware of what happens when chemicals concentrate in your garden, in your lawn, in a large cornfield.”

Habib said she believes that most people are unaware that as a macro nutrient critical for our food supply, the global supply of phosphorous used in commercial fertilizers is diminishing rapidly. One of the only ways to sustain supply is reclaiming it from urine.

According to the Rich Earth Institute, the technology for removing nutrients from wastewater treatment plants is expensive to build and operate. Yet separating urine from the rest of the wastewater at the source has the potential to eliminate 75 percent of the nitrogen and 55 percent of the phosphorus from municipal wastewater without making any changes to treatment plants, while diverted urine can be processed into a natural and sustainably-produced fertilizer that can replace synthetic fertilizer.

Also, the Institute says on its website, excess nitrogen and phosphorous that passes from wastewater plants into waterways can cause algae blooms that can choke water of oxygen, thereby killing off fish and creating “dead zones,” severely damaging aquatic ecosystems.

Scherer says, “It’s an opening-your-eyes kind of exercise.”

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