A key ingredient in fertilizer, phosphorus is becoming more rare and more expensive and stimulating some innovative ways to find more, reports Jeff Horwich for NPR’s Marketplace program The end of phosphorus, which aired on Sept. 12.
That “P” is an endangered species might come as a surprise to many, but not to Arizona State University Regents’ Professor James Elser, who was interviewed for the show. Elser is the co-founder of ASU’s Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative. Issues of limited global phosphorus reserves and limited locales for them – 85 percent of the world’s phosphate rock reserves are confined to Morocco – are just two of scientist’s concerns, he says. In addition, he notes that “there is no substitute for phosphorous in agriculture or biology,” which complicates solutions.
However, solutions to what could be a growing crisis – with the human population approaching 10 billion mouths to feed – might be closer to home than most realize: in our urine. Up to 5 tons of phosphorus are flushed down toilets each day at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Facility in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. (Imagine the numbers for larger urban centers, such as Los Angeles, New York or Washington, D.C.)
Diverting waste streams to fertilize our fields isn’t a new idea. But it’s an old idea that’s being underutilized, those interviewed agreed. Reclamation efforts could also translate to healthier lakes and oceans, which are now impacted algal blooms, fish kills and dead zones created by fertilizer and sewage runoff.
While recycling wastewater might be the wave of the future, we may also find ourselves altering our diets to restrict meat consumption, or even, as University of Minnesota’s Larry Baker suggests, dialing back the size of our dogs as “pet food is a major phosphorus user.”
Some things to ponder when you pick up after your P-productive pooch.