Europe has set up a marketplace to extract phosphorous, a pollutant that causes algae blooms in rivers, and re-use it as a fertiliser, turning pollution into a useful product. The project connects those who produce the waste with both technologists who can process it and farmers who can buy the fertiliser. In this way, it creates a market-driven means of cleaning up Europe’s rivers and conserving resources of phosphorous, which is not renewable.
Results & Impact
35 organisations signed up to ESPP within a few months of it being established, all of Holland's 23 waste water treatment companies are extracting recycled phosphorus from sewage, and 50% of Sweden's sewage is directed to phosphorus extraction
AWEL Kanton Zurich, Baltic Sea Action Group, Biomasa Peninsula, Biorefine Cluster Europe, Clariant Produkte (Deutschland) GmbH, Dutch Nutrient Platform, Ecophos, Fertilizers Europe, Fraunhofer IGB, German Phosphorus Platform, Highlands and Islands Enterprises, ICL Fertilizers, European Inorganic Coagulants Producers Association, Industrial Chemicals ltd, Italmach Chemicals Group, ITAPOLINA, Kemira, Liebniz Science Campus Rostock Science, Lippeverband, Netherlands Government, NuReSys, Ostara, Outotec, Phosphoric Acid and Phosphates Producers Association, PHORWater, Phos4ever, Queen's University Belfast, SEDE VEOLIA, Severn Trent Water, Suez Environment, Thames Water, Timas Agro International, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland, United Utilities
The project connects a range of players: organisations that produce waste containing phosphorous, those that extract the phosphorous from the waste, and those that require phosphorus products, in addition to supportive governments. These groups share awareness and knowledge to create a circular and sustainable trade in recycled phosphorus, and promote their work to expand that trade
Cost & Value
Running since 2011
Struvite and recycled phosphorus is still regarded as waste rather than a new product and its trade around Europe is restricted, so the movement of many recycled phosphorus products requires changes to be made to European Fertiliser Regulation. The quality of products made from recycled sewage and phosphorus needs to be carefully monitored and trust in the market is being established slowly. The market for recycled phosphorus may also face competition from the existing market, which is dominated by Moroccan exports
Europe has significantly increased phosphorus recycling by connecting producers, purchasers and processors in an international circular economy trading in the increasingly scarce mineral.
Convened by maverick Dutch civil servant Arnoud Passenier in 2011, the European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform provides a forum for stakeholders to build awareness, network about sustainable expertise, and assess and propose policy and developments.
Phosphorus is essential for making feed and fertiliser in the production of the food we eat. It has no substitute, and is a non-renewable resource being used up at an increasingly fast rate from phosphate mines primarily located in Morocco, China and the USA. It is also a resource that’s wasted at a damaging rate. The chemical disappears from the food chain in fertiliser, animal waste and feed, and even human sewage, a valuable resource literally flushed away into our rivers and seas. When it’s there, it causes immense damage, creating algae that chokes life from the water.
ESPP makes it possible to turn that waste into phosphorus products. It connects organisations that produce phosphorus-rich waste with those that process it into new batches of fertiliser or feed, which is then sold back to agricultural businesses. They continue to produce further phosphorus-rich waste materials like manure, keeping the circular economy rolling. The project is underpinned by 35 organisations, including farmers, agribusiness and governments, that signed up to the project within a few months of its establishment.
“It was very inspiring for people because they saw opportunities,” Passenier, who created the project, said. “This was not just about creating innovations, but to connect businesses with the financial world.”
The technology for extracting phosphorus, he explained, is available but companies often don’t know about it. The task force addresses that gap, setting up interactions between researchers, experts and industry, and creating momentum by showing results.
A company might, for example, learn it can produce struvite, a fertiliser made of ammonium, out of sewage sludge. It will then sell this product to farmers that can make use of it, and in doing so may even establish a further source of the phosphorus in the sludge or manure their new customers produce.
“It develops itself,” Passenier said. “In this project it’s not important that organisations are committed to sustainability,” he added. “If they want to innovate to reduce costs, have a commercial advantage or improve their image, the end result of expanding the circular economy for phosphorus is the same.”
Because the market for recycled phosphorus is new, establishing it can face challenges in both government attitudes and legislation. Struvite and recycled phosphorus is still regarded as waste rather than a new product and its trade around Europe is restricted, so its movement requires changes to be made to European Fertiliser Regulation. The quality of products made from recycled sewage and phosphorus products also need to be carefully monitored, but trust in the market is being established slowly.
Individual stories of success demonstrate how transformative the platform could be in establishing sustainable phosphorus sources. In Ljubljana, the KOTO AlgaeBioGas plant converts 13,000 tonnes of household and industry food waste into biogas, while 30 m2 of algae is used to produce energy, fertilisers and bioplastics. Some 50% of sewage in Sweden is now sent to REVAQ, a certified sewage works where 3000 tonnes of phosphorus is recycled to agriculture per year.
The potential for the project, however, is still huge. At present only around 40% of potentially recyclable phosphorus waste produced in Europe is made use of, and the majority of this increasingly scarce mineral still goes to waste.