Seems to be on everyone’s mind these days, and the Australians are leading the way. Carol, one of our compatriots from ReCode Oregon, brought out this great handout on the topic from The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative in Sydney, and then today John Thackara’s Doors of Perception newsletter lands in my inbox with this note:
WHO WILL CONTROL WORLD URINE FLOWS? (COMPLEX ISSUE 3)
The complexity, interdependence, and monopoly control of food systems is one reason they are not resilient: disruption to one element disrupts the whole. The same goes for sewage systems. The sanitary revolution tranformed public health, but there are increasing doubts about the long term sustainability of large-scale, centralised, water-based sanitation. The highly inflexible nature of existing sanitation systems, burdened with over a century of capital infrastructure investment, and assets that require 30-50 years to pay back, make centralised sanitation both economically unsustainable and institutionally rigid. Large-scale sewage systems also waste a valuable resource: phosphorous. Phosphorus is an important element for many essential processes in the body. In combination with calcium it’s necessary for the formation of bones and teeth.
But mining phosphorus for food fertilizer is consuming the mineral faster than geologic cycles can replenish it. Urine is a potential source of the mineral. So far, there is no indication that Bill Gates wants to monopolise world supplies of urine: this may be because it’s complicated to do so. To capture, value, and reuse urine requires a multi-dimensional transformation in how we think about and treat sewage. Technologies, regulations, business models – and especially attitudes and behaviour – all have to change. Dena Fam, a design researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures in Sydney, is involved in some facinating projects to ‘close the phosphorus’ loop locally. “Sewage is a resource, not a waste product”, Fam explains, “yet conventional sanitation systems struggle to capture, recycle and reuse sewage constituents in sustainable ways”. Fam and her colleagues will pilot urine diversion, recovery and reuse at UTS with the aim of illuminating the interdependent factors that determine successful uptake and potential scale-up of radical sustainable urban sanitation. Read more at:
‘The challenge of system change – analysis of Sydney’s sewer system’
in Design Philosophy Papers 3/2009