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Novaquatis - the Swiss Urine-to-Fertilizer Approach
Report by Andreas Schönborn, EcoEng-online Editor
Establishing urine separation technology in Scandinavia may have been difficult (and
probably still is). Switzerland, however, may even be harder:
The country is densely populated. A large part of the population is living in urban
A well developed sewer network stretches out to almost the last remote village.
Consequently, the wastewater industry is of considerable economic importance
There does not seem to be a need for further action in water protection. The Swiss
waters are much cleaner than they were 30 years ago, although now and then, a
disturbing article about hormones that pass the sewage treatment plants and the
damages they can do to fish makes its way into a local journal.
The Swiss agriculture has a surplus of nutrients, not a lack, so why should it
Then, great sums have been invested, and there already are quite a number of
stakeholders involved. The Swiss direct democracy makes sure that any one of
In this situation, a breakthrough of urine separation technology can only be reasonably
hoped for, when the existing situation is taken into account carefully. The transition can
only be gradual. An idea is needed, how the advantages of urine separation can be
combined with the positive aspects of the existing wastewater management system.
How Novaquatis differs from the Swedish Approach
A potential plan for a gradual transition was first formulated in 1996 by T.Larsen and
W.Gujer . In short, their idea is to use the existing sewer system for transporting the
urine. Urine stored in-house is "released into the sewers at controlled times and is
transported to the wastewater treatment plant, where it can be diverted for separate
treatment" . The collected urine is then treated, converted into a fertilizer and reused
The Swedish approach, in contrast to that, seems much more "down to earth". Urine is
stored in tanks which are emptied periodically and spread on the fields by farmers. No
special treatment is foreseen (see also [4,5]).
The advantages of the Novaquatis approach in the given Swiss situation are quite
obvious: Decentralized urine collection units can be installed when the old system is
still in place. An immediate positive effect on the performance of the existing wastewater
treatment plant can be expected when less and less nitrogen has to be processed.
A so called "peak shaving"  effect will be caused by holding back the nitrogen
normally released with the morning urine, even if it were to be gradually released during
the day. Less nitrogen, and thus, less ammonia, will be in the sewers during rainy
periods, thus reducing the risk of fish kills due to sewer overflows.
The structure of Novaquatis reflects the cyclic nature of the topic. Figure 1 shows the
proposed anthropogenic nutrient cycle and the Novaquatis workpackages (NOVA 1 - 7)
connected with it (from , adapted).
NOVA-1: Evaluation of Consumer Attitude
This workpackage consists of 2 separate projects: The project of C. Pahl-Wostl is
focussing on the "Consumer Attitudes towards Urine Separation Technology and
Anthropogenic Nutrient Fertilizer Use in Organic Farming". This project part has almost
been completed. Seven "focus groups" were conducted in fall and winter 2000/2001. In
these groups, the ideas of urine reuse were discussed by 6 to 8 citizens on 2 evenings.
Thematical input was provided by a web based "Interactive Citizen Information Tool"
(ICIT), ("NoMix Tool"), available at http://www.nomix.ch (in German).
The project of R. Kaufmann-Hayoz concentrates on "The Integration of Urine Separation
Technology into the Daily Routines of Users". Mrs. Kaufmann-Hayoz is a social scientist
with special interest in ecological design and the factors leading to it.
NOVA-2: Development of New Bathroom Technology
The only project, guided by T. Larsen, focusses on the "Informal cooperation with
sanitary firms and information transfer from the relevant NOVAQUATIS projects".
NOVA-3: Transport of Anthropogenic Nutrients
In the only project of this workpackage, W. Rauch concentrates on the "Impacts of the
Anthropogenic Nutrient-Technology on Urban Drainage Management".
NOVA-4: Processing of Anthropogenic Nutrients
This workpackage is focussing on methods for solving three important problems of
At least one promising method for stabilizing stored urine has been identified by
K.Udert in his dissertation  and is currently being examined in more detail: By
lowering the pH of stored urine, it is possible to prevent a loss of gaseous nitrogen to
the atmosphere. At the same time, a reduction of organic microcontaminants has been
observed, although the interpretation is yet unclear.
Another technology which will receive further attention is membran filtration.
H.Siegrist, H.P.Kohler and M.Boller are involved in this workpackage. The fertilizer
produced by the technology chosen will be used for toxicity assessment in the following
NOVA-5: Toxicity Assessment of Urine Fertilizer
develop suitable test systems to assess and follow the toxic potential of organic
microcontaminants in urine and fractions thereof
contribute to the development of a urine treatment method that can be certified as
identify suitable partners which will be able to specifically test the effects of urine
The three projects of this workpackage will work with a battery of ecotoxicological test
sytems (e.g. membrane toxicity testing) and on estrogenicity testing. It will also try to
follow representative substances, e.g. pharmaceuticals, caffeine, cleansing agents,
through the urine treatment process. B.Escher, R.Eggen, M.Suter, C.McArdell and
NOVA-6: Assessment of Agricultural Nutrient Demand and Farmer Attitude
The work in agriculture, under the auspices of A.Berner at the Forschungsinstitut für
Biologischen Landbau (FiBL) in Frick, Switzerland, was going to focus on three main
As first step, a survey was made among 120 Swiss farmers about the acceptance of
urine fertilizer . The results showed that contamination with human pharmaceuticals
was of major concern to the farmers. A product smelling like urine would meet
widespread resistance. Concerning the potential application of this fertilizer on their
fields, the farmers had mixed opinions. Supporters and opponents had almost equal
Unfortunately, the work in this important workpackage has come to a halt at the end of
NOVA-7: Comprehensive Evaluation of the Urine Separation Technology
This workpackage wants to answer the question, whether urine separation technology
is an overall improvement over today's sanitary technology. The technology will be
evaluated using methods and technologies such as: decision analysis, economic cost-
benefit analysis and life-cycle assessment.
Outside of these workpackages, there is one more project located at the University of
Applied Sciences at Waedenswil dealing with the production of an organic fertilizer from
Novaquatis had its official start in July 2000. Thus, it is still too early for results.
Nevertheless, the project has received a lot of attention in the Swiss public. It has been
covered by various newspaper articles and even a TV transmission, and seems to have
This seems amazing, considering the Swiss situation and the fact that the first two full
scale urine separation toilets in Switzerland have just been built into a new building in
Zurich. There is very little practical experience with the technology at all. And - needless
to say - you can't easily buy a urine separation toilet in Switzerland today.
A possible explanation for the large interest is, that contamination of Swiss waters with
hormone residues has been quite a topic in the last two years. A fish decline is being
observed (see also http://www.fischnetz.ch) and organic microcontaminants are seen
I hope that we will be able to report on some results of Novaquatis in later issues of this
 Lehmann, M., 1994, Volkswirtschaftliche Bedeutung der Siedlungswasserwirtschaft, GWA 6,
 Larsen, T.A., Gujer, W., 1996, Separate management of anthropogenic nutrient solutions.
Water Science and Technology 34(3-4), 87-94
 Jönsson, H., EcoEng Newsletter 1/2001
 Johansson, M., Nykvist, M., EcoEng Newsletter 1/2001
 Larsen, T., Rauch,W., and Gujer, W. (2001): Waste design paves the way for sustainable
urban wastewater management. Proc. International Unesco Symposium 'Frontiers in Urban Water
Management: Deadlock or Hope?', pp.219-229, UNESCO, Paris, 2001. [Paper can be
downloaded at http://www.nomix.ch/Publications.html]
 Haller, M., 2000, Düngeverhalten von Bio- und IP-Landwirten - Umfrage zur Akzeptanz des
Novaquatis Projekts. Semesterarbeit. ETH Zürich [in German]
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