Our P-facts highlight the challenges and opportunities of the themes central to both our research network (P RCN) and our implementation oriented partnership (SPA). Taken together these themes comprise the key areas of the Phosphorus Sustainability Challenge.
Many organizations are already working together to recycle more phosphorus and to use it less. Best practices can be found and shared on our P-solutions page.
P follows a 500‐million year geological cycle from weathering of primary rocks to eventual formation of P‐rich sedimentary rocks on the seabed.
In natural settings, P is often limiting to plant and algae growth and is recycled and reused by plants, animals, and microbes about 50 times before it flows to the ocean.
In the oceans, P is reused another 800 times by organisms before falling into ocean sediments.
P is a chemical element whose unique properties give it an irreplaceable role in biology: in the structure of DNA, in cell membranes, in energetic metabolism, and in bones.
The human body is 1.2% phosphorus by mass containing about 650 grams of phosphorus where it is used to construct teeth, bones, and nucleic acids.
About 20% of the human skeleton and teeth are made of calcium phosphate.
There is more phosphorus in human bone than calcium.
Five countries control more than 90% of the P mines globally: Morocco (& Western Sahara), China, South Africa, United States, and Jordan.
Currently Morocco has roughly 80% of global P reserves.
The USA has 12 mines but limited reserves remaining. The United States accounts for 30% of the annual global phosphorus production, but only has access to 2% of global reserves.
Continental Europe, Scandinavia, Indonesia, and India are totally dependent on P imports.
The energy cost is increasing for mining, refining, packing, storing, transporting and applying phosphate rock and fertilizers, increasing the cost of commercial fertilizers.
Across the world, both private interests and governments control P mines.
95% of mined P is used to make fertilizer.
There is no substitute for P in agriculture.
In 2010, farmers worldwide applied ~ 22 million tons of mined P on their fields to produce their crops.
Fertilizers represent about 30% of costs for farmers with large modern farms and a higher proportion still for farmers with small and medium sized farms. These costs are especially significant to farmers in developing countries seeking to increase yields.
For every ton of phosphorus fertilizer produced from mines, five tons of radioactive phosphogypsum waste is generated.
P minerals in soils come from rocks including apatites, strengite, and variscite. Their weathering rates are too slow to meet crop production.
The availability of P in soil is generally low as phosphate binds with calcium, iron, and aluminum and forms secondary minerals that are hardly used by plants.
The optimum phosphorus availability happens in a very small pH range, between 6 – 6.2.
The world consumes 200 billion metric tons of P each year.
Consumption of P is increasing at about 3% annually.
The world has 67 trillion metric tons of P available but these estimates are under dispute.
Many P mines are degrading and deliver lower quality phosphate rock, which necessitates mining yet more rock to produce each ton of fertilizer.
The price of phosphate rock spiked by >700% in 2007-2008. The price of phosphorus rock has increased over 30% since 2010.
Population growth has spurred a 20% increase in global P demand over the past five years. Agricultural production must nearly double by 2050 to meet increased size of the human population.
A balanced diet contains 50 times more P than the recommended daily intake.
Demand for P is increasing as rising global affluence results in increases in meat consumption.
Expanding bioenergy enterprises are also raising P demand, as biofuel crops demand large amounts of P fertilizer. Corn production in the U.S. increased from 5% in the 90’s to 40% by 2013 that resulted in a 7% increase in phosphate fertilizer usage in the U.S. while releasing 25% of the P from the Mississippi watershed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Increasing concentrations of P in aquatic systems can cause algal blooms, with resulting ecological and economic damage.
Major sources of these excesses include concentrated animal feeding operations, urban sewage and runoff, and agriculture. Non-point sources are particularly difficult to regulate and treat.
P from these sources contributes to the increasing problems of massive algal blooms that cause oxygen‐free, "dead zones" in lakes, estuaries, and oceans where nearly all aquatic animals and plants are suffocated.
The world now has over 400 dead zones that are increasing in size by 10% per decade.
The EPA reports that, in some states, 80% of the water bodies are so impacted by agricultural nutrient runoff that they are unfit for human recreation.
Conservative estimates indicate that nutrient runoff to freshwaters causes $2.2 billion in economic damages annually; economic damages to marine ecosystems are not yet estimated.
The 2013 algae bloom in Lake Erie was the largest on record, owing to warming climate and nutrient loading.
Extra load of P into the Gulf of Mexico creates hypoxic (dissolved oxygen is less than 2 mg/L) dead zones up to 6,000-7,000 square miles.
Urine contributes over 50% of the phosphorus load to wastewater treatment plants.
55% of P from the city waste goes to wastewater treatment plants.
Recovery of P from wastewater treatment plants can not only provide revenue, but also helps meet environmental regulations for water quality.
~45% of P that enters a city in food ends up in landfills.
In 2012, roughly 50 million tons of P rich organic waste (food scraps and yard trimmings) were buried in landfills while 21.3 million tons were composted.
Anaerobic digestion of organic waste produces methane (bioenergy) and a compost-like byproduct that can be used as a fertilizer.