After a summer of media filled with stories of algal blooms wreaking havoc on our waterways, the challenge of phosphorus pollution can seem overwhelming. But there is good news. I’ve had the privilege over the past several months to speak with many people at the forefront of addressing the phosphorus challenge. I’ve spoken with our international network of scientists whose analyses point the way towards better phosphorus management practices; with entrepreneurs who have developed technologies for phosphorus recovery and recycling; with NGOs who are raising public awareness and putting pressure on regulators to act; with farm groups who want to be good stewards and reduce their footprints; and with regulators who want to craft enlightened policy.
The good news is that there is no shortage of goodwill and brain power available, and you’ll be hearing from some of those altruistic intelligentsia right here on this blog. We’ll promote their contributions in our quarterly newsletter, our twitter feed, and our LinkedIn page, so please keep an eye out.
A couple of common themes have emerged from my discussions:
- There’s strong appetite for cross-sector knowledge sharing and the development holistic approaches to dealing with phosphorus pollution. People tend to work in silos, but recognize that problems are common. Some of the same issues and uncertainties are being faced at municipal wastewater facilities that are being faced at manure lagoons. How do we make phosphorus recovery economically viable? What are the regulatory constraints on safe secondary phosphorus use? There’s also an expressed need for networking opportunities to connect organizations across the value chain and build trust. That’s why we are developing a technical webinar series and hosting our Phosphorus Forum 2017 event on May 19 in D.C.
- Animal waste management is the low-hanging fruit, diffuse phosphorus is the high-hanging fruit. Agriculture is the biggest user of phosphorus and the biggest generator of phosphorus pollution. Practices such as 4R nutrient stewardship can help mitigate phosphorus misapplication issues, but how do we manage phosphorus after use? Technologies for extracting or otherwise utilizing phosphorus from animal wastes are commercialized, but those for handling diffuse phosphorus from run-off—not so much. If we want to tackle phosphorus pollution expediently, we probably need to concentrate now on enabling practices and technologies for phosphorus recovery from animal wastes and wait for diffuse phosphorus management technologies/practices to catch up. In the long term, though, comprehensive approaches are needed.
- There’s real value in having the strong academic network we’ve inherited from the Alliance’s five-year-old progenitor, the NSF’s Phosphorus Sustainability Research Coordination Network (P-RCN). Industry likes to incubate and vet ideas in the academy, where risk is low, and there is great expertise and passion among academics, some of whom have been working on these issues for decades. We’re going to fan these flames as much as possible, including making the Phosphorus Forum 2017 event a joint meeting of the P-RCN and the Alliance.
- The Europeans are way ahead of us. Luckily, we have friends in Europe who’ve cleared a path forward for us, particularly at the European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform. While our own focus will be on North America, the phosphorus challenge is global, and we will need to coordinate with efforts such as theirs. We get to peer into our own future by looking at their present.
We’re looking forward to working with you on these critical issues and hope your organization will help us build this network by becoming a member.