From Waste to Taste: Turning Pee into Tea Using Space Technology

Image of the Semilla Sanitation hub. It houses toilets, urinals, and sinks, and treats the wastewater on-site.

Everyone knows you can make tea out of water, but did you know you could make water out of pee? That’s what Semilla Sanitation has been getting up to with their space mission-inspired water treatment facilities.

Semilla Sanitation provides a circular solution to wastewater treatment using advanced sanitation technology. Working in collaboration with the European Space Agency and Nijhuis Industries, the company creates self-sufficient and decentralised closed-loop wastewater treatment units that convert wastewater into clean water and fertilisers.

That’s what’s used to make the tea. At festivals throughout the Netherlands, Peter Scheer, the company’s CEO, can be found passing out cups of mint tea, freshly brewed from the leaves of mint plants growing out of the irrigation water and fertilisers generated on-site from the treatment of festival goers’ flushing and washing water.

Semilla Sanitation’s modular units provide toilets, urinals, and showering facilities. Through on-site biological or physical treatment, the three wastewater streams from these three facilities are converted into hygienic faucet water, irrigation water, fertiliser, and compost. The modules can also be configured to produce biogas and electricity. The result is a system that closes the loop between water treatment and water supply, to provide three of the basic necessities for life: water, food, and sanitation.

Peter Scheer, CEO of Semilla Sanitation, pours a glass of mint tea brewed from the fertilizer and irrigation water generated from their on-site waste water treatment facility at MadNes festival 2019.
Peter Scheer, CEO of Semilla Sanitation, pours a glass of mint tea brewed from the fertiliser and irrigation water generated from their on-site waste water treatment facility at MadNes festival 2019.
Photo by Yvonne Zoethout via the MadNes Facebook page

From pee to tea… but first it was beer!

In fact, the sheer amount of people that are concentrated in one place at festivals is allowing the company to tap into a previously unheard-of water source.

“At festivals, we collect as much as 40,000 litres of pee from all the beer and cocktails the festival goers consume,” says Peter Scheer, in an interview with MaterialTrader. “In this amazing way, we are not just treating and reusing water that has already been taken from city pipelines to flush the toilets, we are actually creating a new source of water.”

A photo of Semilla Sanitation's mobile toilet and water treatment unit. It is one large container, in which the toilets, urinals, and sinks are located. The wastewater is collected and treated in the same container.
From waste to taste: Semilla Sanitation’s mobile toilet facility captures 40,000 litres of beer from festival goers, in the form of their urine, and transforms it into delicious cups of tea.
Image: ESA

The technology isn’t only suitable for festivals, though. While also applicable to campsites, HO2-neutral sewage-less neighbourhoods, and many other permanent and flexible settings, Semilla Sanitation’s ultimate goal is to use their mobile self-contained treatment modules towards humanitarian aid, such as water-scarce regions or disaster relief zones. “Remote villages, for example, could really benefit from having a way to sanitise their wastewater and turn it directly back into a usable resource for growing their crops and keeping spaces clean,” says Scheer.

But the company’s not quite there yet. Right now, they’re focused on refining their technology and building credibility through local projects in the Netherlands. The company has already scored a major project with the Municipality of Amsterdam to implement their yellow water treatment modules on Amsterdam’s streets. In collaboration with Urban Senses, together they present GreenPee: the sustainable urinal. These urinals are scattered around the streets of Amsterdam in attempt to deter people from public urination. The urine is then collected and processed using Semilla Sanitation’s yellow water treatment method.

“The process of treating yellow water is slightly different to the processes of treating grey water and black water. Yellow water is water that only contains urine, often collected from men’s urinals. Grey water is the run-off from domestic purposes, such as showering and washing the dishes. Black water is akin to sewage sludge, which is a combination of toilet water, feces, tissue, blood, and anything else that gets flushed down the toilet,” explains Scheer.

The yellow water is pre-treated biologically and concentrated using a vacuum evaporator. Ultraviolet light is then used to break up the complex chains of any drugs and chemicals that remain – particularly important when treating the urine of Amsterdam’s partygoers.

The result is 90% clean water and 10% fertiliser. The fertiliser produced from this process has a 75% lower carbon footprint compared to artificial fertilisers and can be used on public sports fields and green spaces or for agriculture and animal feed production. The clean water can be reused for domestic purposes, cooling systems, irrigation for crops or local greenery, or released into the environment to replenish groundwater reserves.

A picture of the GreenPee urinal. It is a green box with an open u-shaped container on one side, to capture the flow of urine. Plants grow on top of the box.
The GreenPee urinal. These urinals provide a place for men to pee, preventing public urination, and provide a way to transform their waste into a resource.
Image: GreenPee

Space technology for a circular world

Semilla Sanitation’s goal is to treat water in a way that is more sustainable than current treatment methods, that closes the loop between wastewater supply and clean water demand, and that produces additional value over and above the value of the water that it started with.

“What we mean when we say we are using ‘space technology’ is that we are working together with the European Space Agency to design a circular system that can provide the basic necessities of life, both in space and back here on earth,” says Scheer.

Creating a circular world by transforming wastewater into a resource within a closed loop system, in order to provide these basic necessities – sanitation, clean water, and nutritious food – is the mission at the core of Semilla Sanitation’s work.

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