My Clean Break column today touches on the issue of “peak phosphorus” and ways of recycling this limited resource by extracting it from municipal wastewater systems and other industrial processes that make food, drink and fuel from plant and animal parts. One company that has developed an efficient way to extract phosphorus and nitrogen from the stuff we flush down our toilets is Vancouver, B.C.-based Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, which takes these nutrients and turns them into a high-quality pelletized compound that can be mixed with commercial fertilizer products.
Fact is, we’ve got a phosphorus problem. It has to be mined from ancient seabed rock, with most of the world’s reserves in Morocco and the Western Sahara, China and North America. There’s only so much of it around, at least what can be mined economically. Studies suggest we could hit “peak” phosphorus sometime in the 2030s and that North American reserves have already peaked, all of this threatening world agriculture production at a time when rapid population growth is boosting food demand. Phosphorus is essential for life — humans and animals need it for healthy bone formation, and plants need it to grow. We eat the plants, of course, so you get the picture, and we excrete whatever we don’t use. Unfortunately, we’ve messed up the phosphorus cycle by redistributing this valuable resource and letting so much of it concentrate where it shouldn’t be, such as lakes, rivers, and oceans, where it throws local ecosystems out of whack. So we need to do a better job of managing phosphorus resources, and part of that is to recycle it from local waste streams, including the slop collected at municipal wastewater treatment plants.
Ostara, it should be noted, has won a number of awards and is attracting customers and investors from around the world. It has several commercial demonstration systems in operation and is now gaining traction in Europe. A great Canadian cleantech story.