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New EU regulations make selling precipitated phosphorus appealing for water utilities

Selling precipitated phosphorus as fertilizer will be legal across the EU come July 2022. It’s a step toward the circular economy, regional food security, and improved waterways. It’s also a source of new revenue for wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs).

When wastewater containing phosphorus is flushed into the environment, it’s a waste of valuable nutrients. Instead of that phosphorus finding new life as fertilizer on a farm, it feeds the algae in lakes and rivers. The consequences are twofold. First, it puts fertilizer supply (and food security) at the mercy of phosphorus-rich countries like Morocco, the US and China. Second, it results in lakes and rivers with unsightly algae blooms (i.e. eutrophication). This wreaks havoc on local ecosystems and limits summertime recreation like swimming.

In Europe, the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD) sets the maximum amount of phosphorus entering surface waters from WWTPs. Still, compliance is an issue across the region. “There are many European countries where not a single lake is free of eutrophication,” said Ludwig Hermann, President of the European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform (ESPP).

ESPP members have researched a number of ways that phosphorus ends up wasted in surface water, and just as many ways to recover it for use as fertilizer. According to their research, one of the top opportunities for phosphorus recovery and recycling is through more effective phosphorous removal at WWTPs.

Ludwig Hermann, President of the European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform (ESPP)

New regulation brings new incentives

As of July 16, 2022, Regulation (EU) 2019/1009 will lay down criteria on agronomic efficiency and safety for the use of phosphorus by-products in EU fertilizing products. Ludwig hopes this will encourage more municipal and industrial WWTPs to recover phosphorus and sell it into the fertilizer market.

“Innovative WWTPs that are willing to invest in phosphorus removal now will have a valuable new revenue stream. There’s a much stronger incentive beyond compliance,” he explained.

Additionally, the EU Commission is expected to announce revision to the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC) this summer. Updates to the three-decades-old law will likely include lower limits on phosphorus emission in treated wastewater.

The good news for WWTPs that are interested in exploring this new opportunity is that technology for more efficient phosphorus removal and recovery already exists.

For example, Kemira offers KemConnectTM P, a platform that’s part digital solution, part chemistry. With an algorithm for multiple dosing points, it delivers the exact dose of coagulants required for chemical phosphate removal even under changing process conditions.

Moreover, new technologies are in the works. For example, Ludwig says he sees promise in ViviMag® a new magnetic separation process that recovers iron-phosphate minerals (vivianite) from sewage sludge.

Even more for the circular economy

ESPP advocates energy efficiency and energy recovery measures as well. According to Ludwig, “It’s a strategic decision because I’m always thinking about the WWTP business model. Energy recovery is low-hanging fruit. It’s important for sustainability, and a great source of additional revenue for water treatment facilities.”

Plants can recover heat and sell it to power local communities. They can also convert sludge to biogas to power their own operations or nearby industry and residences. Both options improve energy efficiency, are more climate-friendly, and serve as valuable revenue streams.

Ludwig pointed to Vienna as an example. “In the next two years Vienna will heat 120,000 homes – 13% of its households – with heat recovered from wastewater treatment,” he said.

In general, he believes WWTPs will benefit when they stop thinking about activities like phosphorus removal or energy efficiency in terms of compliance and costs, and instead start thinking about them as opportunities in the new circular economy.

To learn more about phosphorus recovery and the circular economy, please contact jean-christophe.ades@kemira.com