Nauru is a small island-state in the South Pacific, but instead of white sandy beaches and swaying palm trees, a barren wasteland meets the eye. The population is forced to live on a thin coastal strip and may have to be evacuated soon. On the other side of the world, a green algae slime is encroaching on the Baltic Sea, covering the rocks in port cities such as Finland’s Helsinki and Tallinn in Estonia. In Morocco, children living near mines have black teeth.
What all these events have in common is one mineral: phosphor. Essential to all life, it glows in the dark and is found in bones and teeth. We need it in our food to survive; we need it in our fields to grow food. And we are running out of it.
We broke the phosphate cycle. Our ancestors lived in huts next to their fields, consumed local food, and used their excrement, and their animals’, as fertilizer. The phosphor cycle was closed and working. But as a result of urbanization, more than 50 percent of the world’s population today lives in cities, and its excrement is collected in waste treatment plants and is usually not inserted back into the environment the phosphate came from. Often it is incinerated and used in construction, power plants or chemical factories.
This prevents phosphor from re-entering the cycle. “This is a huge missed opportunity,” says Ludwig Hermann, a senior consultant for energy at Finnish company Outotec. Valuable phosphor is wasted, and to Hermann, this is a “major misuse” of waste.
“We also have a mental problem, because unlike our forefathers, we don’t like to put our shit, in the literal sense, onto the fields,” says Jörg Matschullat, a professor at Germany’s Freiberg University of Mining and Technology. However, the story has become more complicated than a problem of attitude, as Hermann explains. Today much of human and animal excrement contains too many hormones and too much medicine to be safely applied in its primary form.
Hence, the two scientists advocate recycling phosphor and have developed technologies to do so. “You can de-water the manure, combust it and convert it into ash and use it as a highly concentrated fertilizer,” Hermann says. “That product you can move across Europe or even overseas. You are starting with a concentration of 0.3 percent, and you end up with a concentration of 20 percent, which can be transported, as it’s valuable enough. This secondary product is highly concentrated, free of harmful pollutants and clean.”
Today, we not only put the nutrient into buildings; we also send a massive overdose of phosphor into our seas and other water bodies. The Baltic Sea is one of the most polluted seas in the world, and despite 40 years of environmental management, the depressing fact is that “in reality the ecological state of the Baltic Sea is not improving,” according to the Finnish Institute for International Affairs. The Baltic Sea today contains 800 percent more phosphorous than it did 100 years ago, which causes eutrophication, a fancy term for a process that leaves large water bodies dead.
Such a dosage of this nutrient leads to excessive algae growth, sucking up all the oxygen and killing all other life. This is a major problem not only in Europe but in many other regions as well, China being a prominent case. “Redistribution would also solve this problem, because the incentives are wrong at the moment,” Hermann says. “The people who have wastewater plants want to get rid of the material and actually pay the farmers to be able to unload the waste. Simply moving the farmers away from phosphor hot spots sounds easy in theory but is not happening, so the nutrient needs to be moved.”
“Mining is dirty,” Matschullat says bluntly. It pollutes the environment with highly harmful substances, leading to, among other things, black teeth in children living close to the mines in Morocco. Using recycled phosphor would also lessen dependence on regions with phosphor mines and prevent unsustainable mining, such as that on Nauru.
Morocco alone sits on 75 percent of the world’s phosphate resources. This is highly critical, Hermann emphasizes, noting, “If there is an uprising in Morocco, we might not have phosphate in Europe.” Matschullat says, “We need a paradigm shift from a centralized to a decentralized system of phosphate management. But the large companies who control the minerals don’t like this paradigm shift. We will need the young generation to work on this. You could say, ‘Folks, there is an alternative! This is no longer needed.’”
Featured image: Phosphate mining operation in Togo; Source: Wikimedia Commons.