Study Highlights Concerns for Achieving Sustainable Phosphorus

July 5, 2023
Researchers at North Caroline State University ask phosphorus stakeholders what it would take to achieve more sustainable phosphorus production. The results show doubt it can be done.

A new study from researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU), Raleigh, finds that most phosphorus stakeholders have significant doubts about the long-term sustainability of existing phosphorus management systems. The study underscores the complex challenges facing policymakers and other decision-makers to ensure continued access to a widely used resource that is finite and largely non-renewable.

Phosphorus is a naturally occurring element used in a variety of industrial sectors. However, scientists have been studying its energy-intensive production process in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions. In addition, phosphorus runoff contributes to major water quality issues, such as the formation of oxygen-free “dead zones.”

The researchers collected survey data from 96 stakeholders involved in various aspects of phosphorus management. These study participants represent a variety of industry, environmental, agricultural and policy interests and have expertise in different aspects of phosphorus management.

The researchers found 30.2% of study participants felt that current practices regarding “the mining, use, transport, recovery, recycling or disposal of phosphorus and materials containing phosphorus” was completely unsustainable. Another 45.8% of study participants felt these practices were only slightly sustainable – which was one step up from unsustainable. Meanwhile, 14.6% felt that the practices were neither sustainable nor unsustainable, and only 4.2% of respondents felt the practices were “very sustainable.”

“From an industry standpoint, the fertilizer, agriculture, mining, food processing and chemical manufacturing sectors all have a stake in phosphorus – it’s an incredibly important resource,” said Khara Grieger, corresponding author of the study and an assistant professor of environmental health and risk assessment at NCSU in a press release. “Phosphorus stakeholders also include policymakers, wastewater treatment facilities and environmental groups who are concerned about the adverse impacts that mismanaged phosphorus has on our water quality.

“If there are two key takeaway messages here, one of them is that there is very real concern among the majority of phosphorus stakeholders about the sustainability of this essential resource,” added Grieger. “The other takeaway is that there is no silver bullet for addressing this challenge – the needs and concerns across stakeholder groups are too varied and tend to be context and site-specific.”

However, when researchers asked study participants about what is needed to advance phosphorus sustainability, three items stood out across all industries: new, improved or different regulations; improved management practices and procedures; and new or improved technologies.

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