Ten things we can do to manage phosphorus better!

Celebrating the 350th Anniversary of Phosphorus’ Discovery!

Did you ever wonder why your home and garden fertilizer has specific ratios of nutrients? Well, the story goes back even further – to the discovery of those elements! Phosphorus is one of the main “ingredients” for healthy plant growth. This year, 2019, is the 350th anniversary of the discovery of the element phosphorus, so the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) and the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) are celebrating Phosphorus Week. We’ll have guest bloggers on Soils Matter this week, covering various topics. This fifth and last blog on this topic covers what we can do in our cities and towns to manage phosphorus more carefully.


Our blog series has focused on where phosphorus comes from, and how it is used in agricultural practice. There is still work to be done to continue to improve the long term stewardship of phosphorus in agriculture. But, agriculture isn’t the only source of phosphorus pollution. Urban areas also contribute, as do personal practices. There are many actions that we can take now as individuals and families to reduce phosphorus waste and loss:

Bathroom counter with scattered products blurred out for brand protection.
Many home products still use phosphates, though they were banned from laundry detergents in the 1970s. Check the labels, and use alternative products to reduce your burden on phosphorus pollution.
  1. Minimize the use of cleaning products that contain phosphorus. Phosphorus use in laundry detergent was discontinued in the 1970s. But, it can still be used in other household cleaners and detergents. Read the label and look for words like phosphorus, phosphate, orthophosphate, etc. Practice mindfulness as you use and discard of those products.
  2. Always read the label on any fertilizers you use in your yard. Ask your neighbors to do the same. Reduce or eliminate the use of phosphorus fertilizers on lawn and garden. And, just like farmers, have your soil tested regularly – maybe you can skip fertilizer altogether this year!
  3. Minimize runoff from your yard – avoid over-watering. Never fertilize if heavy rain is in the forecast.
  4. Encourage infiltration of rainwater and snowmelt water through the use of rain gardens and rain barrels.
  5. Keep lawn clippings and leaves in your yard and out of waterways and sewers. Mulch your garden – covered soil is healthier soil, with less runoff. This also keeps the soil from eroding off your property and reaching storm drains or municipal ditches.
  6. Pick up pet poop. In addition to carrying pathogens, feces have a high nutrient content, including phosphorus. Rainwater and snowmelt water can flush pet waste directly into waterways through storm sewers.1
  7. If your house or cottage is next to a waterway or lake, maintain, stabilize and restore your shoreline to a natural state. This provides a buffer between disturbed or built-up areas and the water.
  8. Avoid the use of kitchen sink garbage disposals. Compost organic waste, instead, and reuse it in your yard.
  9. Ask your area parks manager and workplace to employ only landscaping companies that follow the 4R nutrient management strategies.
Hill with vent and water flowing out into large pond for holding water.
Everyone can do their part to keep phosphorus out of our waterbodies. Shown, a stormwater management system using a retention pond to hold city water. Credit SV Fisk

What can we do better in our cities and towns?

Over 80% of the US population lives in urban areas. Food is imported, and “digested food” is collected and treated as “wastewater” (i.e., sewage). This creates many of the same challenges as with intensive concentrated livestock operations. So, here’s number 10 in our list:

10. Recover phosphorus from urban wastewater and recycle that phosphorus back into the food production system. This may seem like a simple solution to the challenges for sustainable phosphorus management. However, the challenge of capturing and recycling phosphorus from cities is substantial, because it’s expensive and it usually has to travel a long way. So far, the main phosphorus-related focus for most cities’ wastewater treatment systems has been on phosphorus removal. However, we also need to shift toward phosphorus recovery and recycling as a way of improving our management of this non-renewable resource. 

Bottom line…we all eat…we all live in a watershed…and we can all do our part to improve phosphorus stewardship

As we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the discovery of phosphorus, let’s recognize and appreciate the important role of phosphorus for food production and water quality. And let’s also renew our efforts to manage phosphorus more carefully, not only for the benefit of ourselves, but also for the benefit of future generations. Whether we live in cities or towns or on farms, all of us can manage phosphorus better, to improve the long-term sustainability of our food system and improve water quality.

By Don Flaten, University of Manitoba

Read the other blogs in our phosphorus series!

The discovery and general uses of phosphorus

Why is phosphorus needed on farms? 

What are the sources of phosphorus for crops? 

What are the challenges regarding phosphorus use?

To receive notices about future blogs, be sure to subscribe to Soils Matter by clicking on the Follow button on the upper right! Explore more on our webpage About Soils. There you will find more information about Soil Basics, Community Gardens, Green Infrastructure, Green Roofs, Soil Contaminants, materials for Teachers and more.

For more ideas on what we can do as individuals and families, go to the US Environmental Protection Agency website, for example:


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