Recycle phosphate from waste water rather than mining it, professional body urges

Urgent action is required to reduce depletion of phosphate reserves and improve food security, according to the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM).

Phosphate mine in Jordan - image: NASA/GSFC/METI/Japan Space Systems
Phosphate mine in Jordan - image: NASA/GSFC/METI/Japan Space Systems
According to CIWEM's latest Policy Position Statement, at the present rate of extraction today’s phosphate mines will be exhausted by the end of the century. Already China and the USA have tried to restrict exports of phosphate due to its strategic importance.

Phosphate is essential for all living cells and is a standard ingredient in conventional fertilisers, but it is also the least abundant of the major plant nutrients.

CIWEM claims that wastewater treatment could recover 95 per cent of phosphate from urban wastewater - the current EU average is 20 per cent - and favours applying sewage sludge to farmland to recycle the phosphate it contains.

It calls on all governments to follow the examples of Sweden and Germany and make phosphate recovery from urban wastewater a legal requirement.

CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves said: "To date, attention has focussed on removing phosphate from wastewater streams to prevent the eutrophication of waters. But phosphate is of huge strategic value over the longer term and we must also act to recover phosphate from waste-streams for use.

"The economics of extensive phosphate recovery from wastewater would be quite favourable if we viewed phosphorus as a resource, rather than the conventional approach of treating it as a pollutant in the environment, and mining it in mineral form to fertilise our crops."

The full CIWEM Policy Position Statement can be viewed here.


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