Farmers rely on phosphorus fertilizers to enrich the soil and ensure bountiful harvests, but the world’s recoverable reserves of phosphate rocks — from which such fertilizers are produced — are finite and unevenly distributed.

The Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., is spearheading an international effort to map the global flow of phosphorus, much of which will be absorbed by crops, then eaten and excreted as waste by animals and people — and jump-start efforts to recapture and recycle the vital nutrient.

Stephen Steve Powers.

The team showed that there are significant untapped opportunities for recycling phosphorus. First-author Steve Powers, an associate researcher at Washington State University who conceived of the study, is now trying to figure out exactly how much phosphorus can be recaptured from animal and human waste and hopes to identify other opportunities for more efficient phosphorus use.

“If we can recycle more of this locally available waste phosphorus back into agriculture, we might be able to keep it away from leak points while reducing our dependence on future fertilizer imports and mining,” Powers said.

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