The concept of using human waste streams, such as urine and municipal wastewater, as nutrient sources for soilless agriculture has gained increasing attention in recent years. This approach, sometimes referred to as anthroponics or wastewater hydroponics, offers a sustainable way to recycle nutrients from waste into food production. 

History

While the concept of reusing excreta is as old as agriculture itself, the specific application for soilless cultivation was first published in 1991 by researcher Guterstam, B (1). Since then, as hydroponics itself became more widely practiced, hobbyist practitioners mainly experimented with urine (also known as “peeponics”), as it is easier to sterilize and handle than municipal wastewater. Aleece Landis (known as Aquaponics Lynx), was one of the first practitioners sharing her results in web forums as early as 2007, adapting a “barrelponics” system originally made for aquaponics to instead utilize aged urine as the nutrient source for its plants (2).

“Peeponics” system based on a barrelponics design, AquaponicLynx 2007-08

PonicLab’s co-founder, Henrique Sanchez, explored the use of human urine in adapted-aquaponics systems in his master thesis in 2014 (3), and then went on to conduct several experiments demonstrating the effectiveness of human urine as a sole nutrient source for crops like lettuce (4), cucumber (5)(8), and basil and coriander (6), in different configurations and with different amendments. He also developed a method using crushed watermelon seeds to speed up the urine aging process necessary for safe fertilizer use (7).

“Urine aquaponics” pilot in rural Sweden, featured in the master thesis “Aquaponics and its potential aquaculture wastewater treatment and human urine treatment”, Henrique Sánchez 2014

Other researchers have also investigated the use of human waste streams in soilless agriculture. For example, Yang et al. studied the potential of using human urine to grow pak choi in an ebb-and-flow hydroponic system, finding that it could effectively replace conventional fertilizers (8). Similarly, Eregno et al. demonstrated the successful cultivation of tomatoes fertilized with hydrolyzed human urine in a NFT (nutrient film technique) hydroponic setup (9).

In addition to urine, treated municipal wastewater has been explored as a nutrient and water source for hydroponic crop production. Magwaza et al. reviewed several studies on this topic, highlighting successful cases of growing various vegetables using wastewater effluent supplemented with micronutrients (10). These include leafy greens, fruiting crops like tomatoes and cucumbers, and even wheat and maize fodder.

Potential advantages

  • Sustainability: By using human waste streams as nutrient sources, anthroponics reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers and promotes a circular economy approach to agriculture (11).
  • Cost reduction: Human waste streams are readily available and can lower the cost of nutrients for hydroponic systems (12).
  • Wastewater treatment: Incorporating hydroponic crop production into wastewater treatment processes can provide additional benefits, such as water purification and resource recovery (13).

Disadvantages & Challenges

  • Public perception: The use of human waste in food production may face resistance due to perceived health risks and cultural taboos (15).
  • Pathogen risk: Adequate treatment and safety protocols are necessary to minimize the risk of pathogen transmission from human waste to crops (14).
  • Nutrient variability: The nutrient composition of human waste streams can be variable and may require monitoring and adjustment to optimize crop growth (16).
  • Regulatory hurdles: Implementing anthroponics systems at scale may face regulatory challenges related to waste management and food safety standards (17).

Despite these challenges, the potential benefits of anthroponics make it a promising area for further research and development. As we work towards more sustainable and resilient food systems, exploring innovative approaches like anthroponics can help us find new ways to close nutrient loops and reduce waste.

References:

  1. Guterstam, B (1991). Ecological engineering for wastewater treatment: theoretical foundations and realities. In: C. Etnier and B. Guterstam (Eds.), Ecological Engineering for Wastewater Treatment. Proceedings of the International Conference 24–28 March 1991, Stensund Folk College. Bokskogen, Gothenburg, Sweden, pp. 38-54.
  2. https://www.aquaponiclynx.com/pee-ponics 
  3. Sánchez, H.J.A. (2014). Aquaponics and its potential aquaculture wastewater treatment and human urine (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from ResearchGate.
  4. Sánchez, H.J.A. (2015). Lactuca sativa production in an Anthroponics system. Retrieved from ResearchGate
  5. Sánchez, H.J.A. (2015). Cucumis sativus in an Anthroponics system under different urine dosages. Retrieved from ResearchGate.
  6. Sánchez, H.J.A. et al. (2015). Ocimum basilicum and Coriandrum sativum cultivation in a decoupled anthroponics system. Retrieved from ResearchGate.
  7. Sánchez, H.J.A. (2016). Citrullus lanatus seeds as a urine catalyst for anthroponics use. Retrieved from ResearchGate.
  8. Sánchez, H.J.A. et al. (2015). Wood ash as a nutrient supplement for Cucumis Sativus in an anthroponics system. Retrieved from ResearchGate.
  9. Yang, L. et al. (2015). Fertilizer potential of human urine in pak choi cultivation. Journal of Integrative Agriculture, 14(8), 1562-1573.
  10. Eregno, F.E. et al. (2017). Hydroponic tomato production using human urine. Acta Horticulturae, 1190, 249-252.
  11. Magwaza, S.T. et al. (2020). Hydroponic technology as a potential strategy for sustainable crop production and wastewater treatment: A review. Sustainability, 12(17), 7004.
  12. Olofsdotter, A. et al. (2022). Green fertilizers from human excreta: A review of current research and future possibilities. Ambio, 51, 1373-1383.
  13. Castellar, J.A.C. et al. (2021). Urine for phosphorus recovery in a circular economy perspective: Technologies, challenges, and opportunities. Science of the Total Environment, 799, 149335.
  14. Simha, P. & Ganesapillai, M. (2017). Ecological Sanitation and nutrient recovery from human urine: How far have we come? A review. Sustainable Environment Research, 27(3), 107-116.
  15. Lienert, J. & Larsen, T.A. (2010). High acceptance of urine source separation in seven European countries: A review. Environmental Science & Technology, 44(2), 556-566.
  16. Winker, M. et al. (2009). Ryegrass uptake of nitrogen and phosphorus from human urine and mineral fertilizer in a greenhouse experiment. Biosystems Engineering, 103(4), 417-424.
  17. EC, (2016) Sewage Sludge. European Commission, 08/06/2016

Disclaimer: The information above has been partially aided in its drafting and/or editing with LLM tools.

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