Why we should care more about the environmental impact of nutrients

The Soil Association highlighted the issue of peak phosphorous and its threat to food security in their report: A rock and a hard place, in 2010 (which appears to be no longer available on-line?). And made several recommendations for the UK Government, it would like to implement.  In an article I posted in 2013, I highlighted the work Wessex Water was doing to recycle nutrients.  Using the waste from their bio-digester plant, which also produces electricity and bio-gas.  They also employ chemists to work with their customers, to ensure their land gets the right amount of nutrients.

Unfortunately, the Agra-chemical companies, who produce the fertilisers (mostly from fossil fuels) for industrialised farming industry.  Have the money and the lobbying might, to try and prevent, the large scale uptake of organic farming practices.  In fact, one of the issues being highlighted at the present time, is the pharmaceutical drug residue, that might be present in the recycled waste?  In September 2016, the European Commission’s Science for Environmental Policy, published a news alert.  It was titled: Applying sewage sludge to soil may spread antibiotic resistance.  It has been widely acknowledge, that their has been an abuse of the use of antibiotics in humans and animals.  From which the chemical companies also benefit from, as well as their trade in fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Inside track

crop-spraying_chafer-machinery_flickrBack in 2007, Green Alliance examined the challenges and opportunities for the more sustainable use of nutrients, chiefly nitrogen and phosphorus, in the UK. It recommended a suite of policy principles to make a more circular system a reality.

Little has happened since in the UK. But last month I was asked to present Green Alliance’s policy principles to a conference of Nordic countries in Malmo, and to discuss how to take the agenda forward. I discovered that the ideas remain relevant and useful. 

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Bristol and Wessex Water

As an investor in Triodos Renewables Fund, I decided to go to Bristol to attend the AGM (Annual General Meeting) of the fund.  The meeting took place on Saturday, 15th June and had decide to spend the weekend in Bristol.  This was my second AGM, I had attended, my first being two years ago when it was held at Ness Point, Lowestoft, site of one of the funds wind-turbines.

That weekend was also the start of Bristol’s Big Green Week, which leaves Manchester’s green events in the shade.  The Friday I arrived, it was announced that evening, that Bristol had been elected to be European Green Capital for 2015.  I did noticed their City Centre did seem cleaner and greener than Manchester City Centre, with plenty of mature trees still standing.

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View along St. Augustine’s Way, towards the Cenotaph.

On the Saturday morning I made my way down to the Triodos Bank offices.  I found the walk pleasant, not just because of the views but also of the pedestrian and cyclist friendly attitude of the motorists.  And the scene outside Bristol’s Council’s offices beats Manchester’s any time in my view.

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Bristol City Council offices

At Triodos’s offices we were informed they had solar PV in place on the roof and rainwater was harvested.  Unfortunately, the EA (Environment Agency) had occupied the offices next door first and they were the beneficiaries of the harvested rainwater.  After the main business of the AGM, we had a question and answer session.  One of the questions was about opposition to wind-turbines.  A member of the board, stated only one site had received any complaints, which was Kessingland, a site a visited two years ago.  The complainant wrote, they could not see or hear the turbines, in fact knew nothing about them till they had read about them in the local paper.  The board member did stress, that they still took this complaint seriously and took steps to mitigate any adverse impact.  The Governments real intentions towards renewables, especially Eric Pickles stated support for those opposed to onshore wind.

After lunch, we took a coach to Avonmouth and Wessex Water waste water treatment plant (sewage farm).  After donning hard hats and high-vis, we assembled in a training room to be given a presentation by Mohammed Saddiq of GENeco.  He explained the board of Wessex Water wanted to reduce their energy consumption and reduce their carbon footprint.  Mohammed, stated GENeco was set up to explore the options, looking into energy efficiencies and into trying to be energy self-sufficient.  You need to do both, to achieve the aim of reducing greenhouse gases and moving away from a fossil fuel economy.

Originally the treated sludge waste from the sewage treatment plant, would be taken by local farmers, for a price.  GENeco, decided to put this sewage sludge through a two-stage bio-digester to produce biogas.  This left a rich compost which the company now sold to local farmers.  In fact, the company employs a team soil biologists to advice farmers on exactly how much of this bio-fertiliser they need, to improve their soil.  220,000 tonnes a year are supplied by GENeco to farmers, as an alternative to fossil-fuel derived fertilisers.

He did go on to mention a post-graduate working for them, who had suggested he could use the grits, rags and plastic instead of it going to landfill.  The screenings as they are called are composted and used of remedial landscaping and the plastics separated out and sent to an energy-from-waste plant (I do not know which one and what process it uses).  Their claim is they are zero waste, as no waste is sent to landfill.
As well as sewage sludge being processed in the bio-digester plant, they now collect food waste and use this as well.  The biogas is used in CHP plants to produce energy and heat.  The heat is used to improve the efficiency of the plant and enough electricity is produced to be able to export some to the national grid.  The even produce excess biogas, and have converted some of their vehicles to run on it,not just their promotional vehicle.

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The Big Bug, biogas powered vehicle.

They are producing 42 GWhr/year of electricity, exporting biogas, produce fertiliser and compost and even send treated waste water to a power station for use as cooling water.  And all this was accomplished in 31/2 years.  What has Manchester City Council accomplished since announcing it’s Manchester – A Certain Future, in December 2009?

So why was Triodos Renewables investors here at Wessex Water waste water plant?  During GENeco‘s review of options, they had applied for planning permission for 4 wind-turbines, that was approved.  As, they were already energy sufficient, they had offered Triodos Renewables to chance to build and operate the wind-turbines.  And that was the primary reason we were there, to look at the locations for our 4 new turbines.

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Pilings in place for Turbine 3 at Wessex Water, Avonmouth plant.

These four turbines will give Triodos Renewables an additional 8.2MW of capacity to the already 43.25MW of installed capacity.  A very ethical outcome for all involved.:-)