22 February 2018

South Africa: The Value of Urine in a Water-Sensitive Future

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(File photo).
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There is a huge potential for reducing our water consumption by implementing "simple" initiatives. Coastal cities could also consider sea water flushing for their urinals and toilets, but this requires significant investment to install dual reticulation systems, replace existing pipes and retrofitting waste water treatment plants. Encouragingly, Hong Kong has been using seawater for toilet flushing since the 1950s.

By now, most Capetonians will know what stored urine smells like - a strong ammonia smell which we try to eliminate using detergents or even precious water. But how does this smell develop? Urine is approximately 95% water and the other 5% has many components, the most abundant being urea. Urea degrades when bacteria are present and this reaction forms ammonia gas. Fortunately, we can prevent this reaction from occurring by adding vinegar or bleach.

But other than having a bad smell, urine is very valuable because it has high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the three key ingredients needed to make inorganic fertilisers. It also has calcium, magnesium and other minerals necessary for plant growth. Shockingly, the urine that we flush away in a toilet only makes up about 1% of the sewage from our homes,...

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