Peak Phosphorus and the Role of Biosolids

Could the waste stream become a resource?

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Does the public value its waste and ultimately wastewater? Most people would probably answer that question with a resounding, “no.” But public perception could be changing, if ever so slightly. 

And a key factor? A finite supply of mined rock phosphate. 

According to some sources, including a 2010 report by the United Kingdom’s Soil Association called “A Rock and a Hard Place: Peak Phosphorus and the Threat to Our Food Security,” the world could potentially reach “peak” phosphorus as early as 2033. This term refers to the point where demand begins to exceed supply. Mined phosphate, a critical component of modern agriculture, could literally become a rare commodity, which would have huge implications on the world food supply. Without readily available phosphate, per acre crop yields would decrease and food prices would skyrocket. 

Cue a reconsideration of biosolids. 

Last night, I sat down to read the Feb./March 2014 issue of Organic Gardening, which is published by Rodale Inc., a well-known proponent of the organic movement. Toward the back of the magazine, an article called, “The Case for Biosolids,” caught my eye. Biosolids, which are a controversial topic for the organic community because of concerns over heavy metal contamination, endocrine-disruptors and other organic chemicals, are currently banned from use on USDA-certified organic foods. That said, at least some in the organic community are reconsidering that position, in part because of peak phosphorus. The 2010 UK Soil Association report calls for a larger role of biosolids in organic agriculture as well, prompting a broader discussion on the use and management of the waste stream. 

Now I’m in no way saying that biosolids alone will solve or prevent peak phosphorus, but the potential crisis is forcing groups to re-examine biosolids, and that’s a good thing for the wastewater industry. 

But perhaps the larger point here is that as finite resources such as phosphate decline, waste becomes a valuable source — one that the public is beginning to notice. 

The 2010 UK report concludes that the waste stream is a partner of the food system, and that to protect one, we must acknowledge and value the other. Whether it’s recovering phosphorus from biosolids or using energy created from anaerobic digestion, the waste stream is part of the answer. It’s part of the food discussion, part of the energy discussion. It’s a valuable part of the future. 

“Our response to peak phosphorus requires us to focus on the interconnection between the production and distribution of our food and the disposal of our waste … What is required is a holistic approach that offers solutions to all of these problems,” reads the report. 

So could a phosphorus crisis assist the wastewater industry? If nothing else, it has already prompted mainstream discussion about how the public views waste. If the organic community can reconsider its position on biosolids, mainstream America should also start to understand the value of the wastewater industry. 

Can biosolids slow the arrival of peak phosphorus? Is the perception of waste in America changing?



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