June 30, 2022 | David F. Coppedge

Waste Not, Want Not

In God’s natural economy,
nothing is ever wasted

 

We learn in biology that plants use the carbon dioxide that we exhale, and we inhale the oxygen that plants and photosynthetic microbes release. Our skin flakes are food for microbes. Since fertilizer is made from cow manure, our solid waste could potentially have that function as well; indeed, some waste reclamation facilities are looking into making fertilizer out of the sludge once microbes have done their work on it. But urine? Is that a bridge too far?

Our waste products (#1 and #2) smell bad to us for a reason, to make us cast them off or bury them and get away. Those of us with modern plumbing can’t flush them down the drain fast enough. When you think about it scientifically, though, our waste products are just chemicals with cells in them. A good part of our solid waste is made up of microbes from the rich microbiome in our gut that helps us digest our food. Doctors were surprised a few years ago to find that fecal transplants work to help cure inflammatory bowel disease. And now, both fecal material and urine have new surprises for our good. To reduce the yuck factor, we will only look at the new findings briefly, but the point is that nothing in God’s economy is wasted, and even in our cast-offs there are benefits to be found.

Ecosystem in harmony

#1

Testing the use of human urine as a natural fertilizer for crops (Phys.org, 21 June 2022). Outdoorsmen and women learn quickly how to “take care of business” in nature and get on with the fun stuff: hiking, fishing and exploring. Home gardeners may have learned to pee in their compost piles because they have heard it helps the composting process and adds nitrogen. Indeed, scientists in Niger, Africa, with help from others in Germany in the UK, remark that

Humans have known for thousands of years that their urine is an excellent fertilizer for crops. It contains phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium—many of the same ingredients as commercial fertilizers. But because of the squeamishness associated with using urine to grow crops, its use has been limited.

The team tried an experiment teaching women farmers in Niger how to use their urine as fertilizer. The first hurdle was changing its name, because it had a bad connotation in their culture. Controlled results showed, though, that millet crops grown with “Oga” (the new name they gave for urine) grew 30% better than those without. “The researchers note that the differences were so great that other women in the region began emulating those in the experiment,” the article ends. “Two years after the experiment, they found that more than a thousand women farmers were using Oga to fertilize their crops.”

Human urine-derived stem cells have robust regenerative potential (Wake Forest University via Phys.org, 28 May 2022). Stem cells are good; but do they really exist in what we flush down the toilet? “The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) researchers, who were the first to identify that stem cells in human urine have potential for tissue regenerative effects,” this article says. And these stem cells have an enzyme (telomerase) that makes them live longer. “Their findings provide a novel perspective to evaluate the capacity of telomerase-positive human urine-derived stem cells to become a wide variety of other cell types, and to be used as an optimal cell source for stem cell therapy or cell-based tissue regeneration.”

#2

Fecal transplants show promise for protecting newborns receiving antibiotics (Cincinnati Children’s Hospital via Medical Xpress, 15 June 2022). Newborns are often given antibiotics in the hospital, but those can disrupt the growth of good microbes in the gut. This can lead to susceptibility to diseases later in life. Doctors at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital found a better way: “The good news from the latest findings is that the damage antibiotics [have] done to commensal microbiota can be restored by transferring a supply of healthy bacteria to the intestines of a child that lacks them—a process called a fecal transplant.” It looks promising in animal studies so far, but may become a routine in maternity wards in a few years after research and trials.

Faecal transplants reverse hallmarks of ageing (University of East Anglia, 4 May 2022). The opening sentence goes without saying. The second sentence, however, is eye-opening:

In the search for eternal youth, poo transplants may seem like an unlikely way to reverse the ageing process.

However, scientists at the Quadram Institute and the University of East Anglia have provided evidence, from research in mice, that transplanting faecal microbiota from young into old mice can reverse hallmarks of ageing in the gut, eyes, and brain.

Again, these results are from animal studies with lab rats. They showed, though, that a healthy microbiome in the gut affects the health of tissues all over the body. What would you rather have? No “yuck factor” in your doctor’s treatment, or a longer and healthier life? Be assured that if this method becomes mainstream, doctors and hospitals will find pleasant ways to do it.

Few readers probably saw discoveries this good coming from human waste. Long life? Health? Better crops? Sure, I’ll donate. Maybe someday new piping and treatment systems will help create the coveted “circular economy” that re-uses everything.

Good stewardship demands good science and good sense. One should not come away from this article thinking it’s OK to poo and pee anywhere in the wilderness. Hikers on desert camps and on extremely popular trails are required to pack out their solid waste, because the soil cannot process the volume of material fast enough. This is true for cavers as well, who must take #1 and #2 outside. There are also microbial reasons to keep waste far from rivers, lakes and streams. When we humans do our part to keep the cycle sustainable, though, we can accept our mammalian role in this regard like the other vertebrates in the ecosystem. The difference is that we have minds and morals to think about it and use good sense.

The character in the movie “The Martian” had to get over his squeamishness to fertilize potatoes so that he could survive till the rescue ship arrived. Space scientists work to figure out ways to recycle astronaut waste products on long flights. In a sense, Spacecraft Earth is just a bigger version that came with cycles of sustenance already in operation. Scientists are merely learning how to imitate our Privileged Planet at smaller scales.

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