Putting a price on phosphorus: links and publications


  1. Phosphorus is mined and processed into fertilizer along with other nutrients like potassium and nitrogen.
  2. Applied to the fields, it is incorporated into vegetables and sold direct or as animal feed.
  3. Phosphorus leaks from agriculture into waterways and is exported to shops as food.
  4. Consumers purchase food for consumption.
  5. Phosphorus leaves the body mainly as urine.
  6. Sewage is processed at water purification plants.
  7. Some phosphorus is dumped as waste from purification, some ends up in waterways.
  8. Eventually phosphorus travels to the sea.
  9. Some phosphorus can be recovered from the sea-bed, most remains in the sea. New technology is being tested to restore seabeds and recover nutrients.

Phosphorus is one of the elements implicated in the work done by Rockström et al at the Stockholm Resilience center.

Image courtesy Stockholm Resilience Centre

We are close to exceeding nature’s boundaries for the phosphorus cycle.

There are three main approaches that should be considered in parallel:

  1. Waste water mining. (point 6)This approach collects all waste water and through heat and chemical treatment turns it to ash. New technology can extract phosphorus, heavy metals etc so they can become part of the circular economy.
  2. Composting and fermenting.(points 2 and 5) Using natural, local processes, urine from animals and humans provides the main source of phosphorus in agriculture.
  3. Creating a local careful use path for all biomass to ensure phosphorus remains recyclable. This includes a major push to restore landscapes and soils and increase productivity.

In two other boundaries, climate change and nitrogen cycle, two other elements, carbon (from fossil sources) and nitrogen are implicated.  These pollutants are different as the diagram below shows:

Thress pollutants

Phosphorus can be regulated using Market Based Instruments. However, because these pollutants have different natures, the application of where and how to apply fees needs careful consideration. The diagram below shows the plethora of  points of extraction of fees and taxes that could be adapted.


Phophirusbreif cover
A recent publication by the Swedish Sustainable Economy Foundation outlines how a flexible pollutant fee can be levied on phosphorus entering the market economy. Raising the fee at regular intervals until the import and or pollution stops, the fees are returned to the market as returns to tax payers.

Download the publication as pdf here. pdfBrief_PhosphorousRD1


A more comprehensive explanation of flexible fees is available in the Foundation’s White paper.

Download the White paper here.
pdf whitepaperFE_V4.02



Natural Step Founder, Karl-Henrik Robert on Flexible fees from a Strategic perspective

Phosphorus expert Arno Rosamarin on Flexible fees 

Sustainable economic growth – how flexible fees represent a control engineering approach to the economy Stephen Hinton


Video explaining the importance of phosphorus for sustainable agriculture. 

A training course (free) provided by the Swedish Sustainable Economy Foundation in circular economy


European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform



Economics of the Ocean Conference in Washington hears about flex fees.


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