Sustanably Yours: From Waste to Resource, Part 1

Let’s talk about waste. Most of us flush and forget: whatever happens afterwards to our byproducts is an invisible mystery that may as well be orchestrated by a giant sanitation Elf. The fact is, our energy and freshwater intensive sewage infrastructure treats waste as a problem to be mitigated, not a resource to be stewarded.

On a macro-level, the two aspects of waste management that we most need to revise our approach with are 1) conserving potable water with flush systems and 2) recovering phosphorus, as well as other nutrients/minerals from waste streams. The first doesn’t need much explaining, but the second points to a much more complicated issue: phosphorous depletion, or, “Peak Phosphorous”. Phosphorous is a geological mineral that is essential to all plant life and therefore essential to the entire food chain from the ground up. This nutrient is the K is the fertilizer N-P-K: it is imperative in everything from growing grasslands to support livestock to growing actual vegetables and grains. Unfortunately, it is a mineral being rapidly depleted around the world, and large deposits of it are inequitably distributed among the continents. For example, one of the largest deposits is in Morocco. So, if ever there is an invasion to provide Freedom to Morocco, it’s probably really to “liberate” their phosphorous . You never know, but if it does happen, you heard it here first.

Ironically, impending lean times with geological phosphorous are juxtaposed against large amounts of phosphorous where it doesn’t belong: fertilizer run off, manure run off and urban disposal issues are clogging our waterways with excess phosphates. By not stewarding this precious resource, large algal blooms are feeding off of this nutrient (originally phosphorous) until oxygen deprived dead zones are forming in rivers, ponds and deltas.

What happens to be a rich source of phosphorous is the waste stream – both human and livestock faeces. Most of the phosphorous our bodies do not use, can be directly recovered from our waste. In fact, this feature makes it a most remarkable resource, since it is the only one that actually increases with population. The main impediment is the lack of political will to design our waste management systems to prioritize mineral recovery. Hopefully underlying that lack of will is ignorance, and not indifference, since this is a conservation issue affecting every strata of humanity.

Large ecological and, indeed, geopolitical issues such as the above, can be very intimidating to the average person. After all, you gotta go when you gotta go, and how can you save the world at the same time? Because my intention for this column is to provide practical guidance with solutions on a small scale, stay tuned for PART 2: “Waste on a Home Scale.”

Sewage treatment

Phosphate mining

Emily Majewski