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Pee-cycling could help to solve Cape Cod's wastewater problem

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Wastewater from septic tanks leaches into many of the iconic beaches and ponds of Cape Cod, Mass. Some towns are spending millions to build sewers, but there may be a cheaper solution. Here's WBUR's Barbara Moran.

BARBARA MORAN, BYLINE: Falmouth, Mass., is one of the bigger towns on Cape Cod. It's where Earl Barnhart lives with his wife, Hilda Maingay, in a house with a huge vegetable garden and fruit trees.

Oh, there's chickens.

EARL BARNHART: Oh, it's like a country club for the chickens.

MORAN: But I'm not here to see the chickens. I'm here to see the bathroom because Barnhart and Maingay are known on Cape Cod as the power couple of pee-cycling. Yes, they recycle their urine. All those luscious vegetables grown on what Barnhart calls liquid gold.

BARNHART: In nature, you have plants and animals, and the animals eat the plants and the waste from the animals go back to the plants, and the nutrients go round and round. Humans don't do that at all.

MORAN: What most humans on Cape Cod do is use septic tanks, which means all those nutrients leach into local bays and ponds, where they feed algae and invasive plants. The plants grow like crazy, sucking up oxygen in the water, killing fish, and turning the bottom to muck. To solve that problem, Falmouth had a plan.

BARNHART: Falmouth, our town, was going to spend $600 million over 40 years and build as many sewers as they could in that time. And that's a huge amount of money, so we started studying alternatives to sewers.

MORAN: Barnhart and Maingay learned that most of the problem comes from the nitrogen in pee, so they paid about $5,000 to install a urine diverting toilet in their home.

OK, here we are in the bathroom. It looks like a normal toilet.

HILDA MAINGAY: Exactly.

MORAN: So then you sit on it and sort of the chute opens in the back. And that's where the poo goes. I see. And then there's, like, a little chute.

MAINGAY: For the urine in the front. And since everybody is pretty much the same, you don't have to think about how I'm going to sit to make this work. It never fails.

MORAN: Never fails? I went back to find out.

OK, I'm actually going to use this toilet. Spoiler - I am not going to tape this, but I will give a report back after. Stand by for the report.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORAN: OK, well, overall, that was pretty anticlimactic. So I just peed, the pee went down where it was supposed to go, and that was that.

I'm not the only one intrigued by this whole pee-cycling system.

BRIAN BAUMGAERTEL: My name is Brian Baumgaertel. I'm the director of the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center.

MORAN: Baumgaertel is an expert on the Cape's wastewater woes. His group is doing a whole research project on pee-cycling. He says we're thinking about urine all wrong.

BAUMGAERTEL: Well, I would argue that wastewater is a resource (laughter). I mean, yes, it's got stuff in it that we don't necessarily like because it might make us sick, but nitrogen is one of the things that we utilize for fertilizer.

MORAN: Baumgaertel says recycling pee could help curb the demand for synthetic fertilizer, but there are challenges. Cape Cod doesn't have the infrastructure yet to recycle everyone's urine, and there's the ick factor to overcome. Still, many in Falmouth see promise in pee-cycling. The town is considering a urine diversion pilot project for at least 50 homes. If the town votes to move forward this spring, it may be the first program of its kind in the country.

For NPR News, I'm Barbara Moran in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Barbara Moran