Waste not, want not

The key to saving the planet may lie within us all, discovers Antonia Quirke.

The Secret Science of Pee
Radio 4

“Next this afternoon," apologised the continuity announcer on Radio 4, "a truly surprising and enlightening look at some of the more extraordinary contemporary and scientific applications for urine. But first, a word about PM. Eddie?" "Hello, yes," said Eddie Mair in his hot-potato voice. "We'll be reporting on the red toxic sludge bringing death and chaos to Hungary. Join me in half an hour." A pause, as continuity wondered how best to marry these uncomfortable themes. "Thanks, Eddie. Now, brace yourself for an ear-opening adventure!"

The stirling Sally Magnusson then went on to tell us that urine is the vital component in a recent invention called a "carbamide power system". Someone introduced as a "knowledge exchange manager" ("teacher"?) at Heriot-Watt University enthused that, using this system, urine might possibly be turned into electricity, "and once we've removed all the urea from the water, then in theory you could even drink your own waste product".

“This is huge," said Sally. Your reviewer was slightly less awed. There was a time when I was allergic to everything. I sneezed all the time. Every living thing had to be expelled from the house - flowers, fruit - because they literally burned my snot. I sat in baths full of cold water to stop the itching on my arms and neck. I lay in darkened rooms blowing my nose on discarded socks. Because no antihistamine appeared to touch the problem, in desperation I visited a naturopath, who made me hold phials of air and tapped my elbows. His fine hair framed his sympathetic face like a late-season dandelion as he advised me to drink my own urine and to avoid everything that came into contact with wheat, especially the gluten-based adhesives utilised by the Royal Mail.

“How can a person be allergic to a stamp?" said my boyfriend of the time, and I could sense in his expression a falling away. This was the beginning of the end. That and the way I kept little bottles of pee lined up in the fridge. "There's a definite yuck factor," said the Knowledge Exchange Manager. "Whereas I just see electricity, money and saving the planet." "Astonishing," breathed Sally, mopping up the ammonia from her own protein sample. PS: My boyfriend dumped me and I stopped sneezing.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?