The State of Phosphorus Now

Phosphorus may be used as a fertilizer, but that use comes at a price.  A community, especially a farming community, that uses phosphorus for fertilizer faces the problem of what to do with that element when large quantities spread through the environment.   Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel, in a story from 4.16.16, explains the concern and urgency regarding phosphorus:

Phosphorus can make a stalk of corn grow as tall as a basketball hoop. It can also pollute bodies of water to the point where they are unsafe for fishing or swimming.

The question is how this nutrient — a key ingredient in fertilizer — can be recovered from a lake or stream and used again.

And adding urgency to that question is that supplies are running out….

In Wisconsin, more than 1,200 bodies of water are now considered at least partially “impaired” — meaning they violate state standards and may be unfit for recreation. Phosphorus is a significant culprit.

In Whitewater, Wisconsin, the community has heard more than once from an unsuccessful candidate for local office who has touted the value of phosphorus, as though that were the end of the matter.  It’s not.

For example, Bergquist writes that at Marquette University, assistant professor Brooke Meyer is managing a half-million dollar grant, as part of a multi-year project, to find a way – not existing now – to recycle phosphorus so that it will not represent so considerable a harm to a community’s water supply. Meyer is considering different recycling possibilities, but there would have been no grant if (1) there already existed an easy recycling method and (2) phosphorus were not a hazard to the environment.

And that, in the end, represents a challenge for any importation plan: waste imported into a city that contained additional levels of phosphorus (among other possible environmentally-adverse substances) would have to be managed on top of whatever was locally used. (This would be an expression of a general problem of waste-importation, where the benefits of production – jobs, crops, etc. – exist in one place, but the detrimental waste therefrom becomes the burden of the importing city.)