Vishnan is afraid. Afraid for his life. He can hear gunshots. People screaming all around him. He can see men in the crowd being hit by bullets and falling to the ground. And yet he continues to surge forward with the hundreds of other demonstrators as they all head towards the government district. Driven on not only by courage but by pure desperation. Helplessly, he has had to face up to the fact that he can no longer afford what farmers need the most to survive: fertiliser. Over the last few weeks, the phosphorus cartel has raised its prices by more than 800%. Much too much for small farmers like Vishnan. Which is why farmers from across the whole of the country have taken to the streets. Knowing full well that they have nothing and everything to lose.
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The scenes described above happened in India in June 2008. Hardly anyone around the world noticed what was going on – which, at first glance, may not be surprising as it was a regional uprising. A closer look, though, and it is clear that the farmers were protesting against a situation that was not only important for the Indian subcontinent but for the whole of humanity. The battle that was taking place at the time for fertiliser was the consequence of an ever deepening crisis revolving around raw materials. This particular crisis involved phosphorus. The most important element on our planet for all forms of life. Nothing can grow, thrive or exist without it. Not plants, not animals, not humans.
Not only is there a limited amount of phosphorus on our planet (as is the case with all natural raw materials), it can only be found in a small number of regions. All of the world’s phosphorus resources are located outside Europe. The main countries exporting phosphorus include Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia. Countries, where phosphorus mining activities are, in part, controlled by shadowy cartel-like structures that end up making the market extremely volatile. Now add to the mix the fact that our planet will soon be home to ten billion people who all need to be fed, then we can and should be very scared indeed. As the whole of our food chain – from the production of cereals all the way through to meat – relies on there being sufficient, and above all reliable, supplies of phosphorus.
Phosphorus is essential for food production
Sewage sludge contains phosphorus
Over the last few years, people in Europe – and particularly in Germany – have been rethinking the whole question of phosphorus. It has become clear that Europe’s dependency on phosphorus-exporting countries must be reduced urgently. The only way to achieve this is to systematically recover and recycle the phosphorus that is already in the country. A material stream that is particularly suitable for this is sewage sludge. The phosphorus that humans absorb from food makes its way by natural means to municipal sewage treatment plants where it ends up in the sewage sludge. And the volumes are not small here: 60,000 tonnes of phosphorus could be recovered every year from the sewage sludge generated in Germany alone.
All large sewage treatment plants in Germany will be obliged by law to recover phosphorus from 2029 onwards. Other countries will soon be following suit.
By the way, the increased efforts being made here in Germany to drive forward the recovery of phosphorus achieve much more than simply conserving natural resources and easing distribution struggles. They also help protect the environment, prevent climate change and even save people’s lives. Natural phosphorus has to be extracted from the ground, which means it destroys the local environment. The carbon footprint of the virgin raw material is also much worse than that of the recovered and recycled raw material. And there is another very important point here: mined phosphorus contains considerable amounts of heavy metals and even radioactive substances such as uranium and radium. For the most part, the people working in the mining regions are completely unprotected from these different forms of contamination and often become seriously ill. The fact that so few people are aware of this situation – or are aware of all those farmers who died in the phosphorus crisis in India in 2008 – simply underlines just how far away our world is from living and working together sustainably. Which makes every step that allows us to move in the right direction – such as phosphorus recovery – all the more important.
Here at REMONDIS, we realised just how important and necessary it was to recover phosphorus before policymakers had even begun thinking about the issue. The subject was initiated and advanced by our specialist company REMONDIS Aqua, which is responsible for all matters concerning water supply and wastewater treatment within our group. Many years ago, REMONDIS Aqua developed the TetraPhos® system – a patented process for recovering and recycling phosphorus that won the GreenTec Award back in 2016. With this system having proven its worth in a whole number of pilot projects, the world’s first ever industrial-scale phosphorus recovery plant was commissioned in Hamburg as a public private partnership between the City of Hamburg and REMONDIS in 2020. Every year, this plant produces around 7,000 tonnes of ultra-pure phosphoric acid from 20,000 tonnes of sewage sludge ash, which can then be used, for example, to produce fertiliser for the agricultural sector. Besides recovering the finite resource phosphorus, the TetraPhos® process is also able to return other valuable raw materials to production cycles: iron and aluminium salts, which can be used as a precipitating agent in the sewage treatment plant, and gypsum for the building supplies trade.
Recovering and recycling phosphorus for the Hamburg metropolitan region – as part of a PPP
It is our goal to return as many recyclable materials as possible to production cycles.
Phosphorus is just one of a whole host of examples.
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