Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari told young innovators at the Mayor Innovation Awards ceremony of the Nagpur Municipal Corporation Sunday that if India could store the urine of its people and use it to manufacture urea, it would no longer need to import the chemical compound used to manufacture fertiliser.
This is an idea Gadkari has proposed earlier, too. In 2015, he had said he collects urine in a 50-litre can for use in his garden. Plants that received “urine therapy” showed better growth than those that got “plain water”, he had said. And in 2017, the Minister had suggested the setting up of urine banks in every tehsil to produce urea.
On Sunday, Gadkari repeated his idea . “I have asked for storage of urine at airports,” he said. “We import urea, but if we start storing urine of the entire country then we will not need to import urea. It has so much potential, and nothing will be wasted.”
India’s urea needs
India consumes about 30 million tonnes of urea annually, of which 24 million tonnes is indigenously produced and 6 million tonnes is imported. In a Mann Ki Baat address in November 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called for a cutting of urea consumption by half by 2022. Urea prices in India are lower than those in neighbouring countries of South and Southeast Asia, as well as China.
Urea from urine
Across the world, scientists have studied the extraction of urea from urine, and the use of urine as fertiliser for its nitrogen content.
In 2011 in South Africa, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a grant of $400,000 to the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Pollution Research Group for an initiative aimed at exploring design and implementation of a toilet system that would lead to the safe disposal and recovery of valuable material from excreta.
A part of the project was to filter urine and flush water to create a high-quality water stream, with the concentrated urine stream being processed to separate urea and other salts. The research is ongoing.
In the early 1990s, Sweden started a urine separation project, as a part of which special toilets and storage tanks were fitted in people’s homes and the urine was used locally.
“The first phase of modern urine diverting toilets took off in the early 1990s targeting single households and summer houses and more than 10 ecovillages… One major environmental feature of many ecovillages was their sanitation system. The urine from these installations was either reused or disposed of on the premises or used by a nearby farmer,” said a study conducted by researchers from three Stockholm-based organisations. (Urine Diversion: One Step Towards Sustainable Sanitation: 2006)
The paper traced the progress of the project from the first phase to the second over five years, and its movement from rural to urban settings in the second phase. Between 2000 and 2005, the project faced a backlash over lack of municipal support. In the fourth phase, municipal bodies adopted sanitation policies that encouraged reuse.
According to estimates, in 2006, there were a little over 10,000 porcelain urine diversion toilets installed in homes in Sweden, along with a few 15 larger systems.
Unsure in India
Experts closer home, however, say that the process of collecting, storing, transporting and isolating urea from urine is fraught with troubles.
“First, we will have to change our toilet system entirely, similar to what Sweden did, and install special toilets where urine and solid waste are stored separately. Specialised underground tanks will also have to be set up. Urea can be extracted from urine using several chemical procedures. The problem is in scaling up and making the project feasible,” said a senior professor at Delhi University.
On Sunday, Gadkari complained that “Other people do not cooperate with me because all my ideas are fantastic.” Even the municipal corporation will not help, “because in government, people are trained to be like (blinkered) bulls who walk in the rut, not looking here and there,” PTI quoted him as saying.