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Nitrogen and phosphorus in the Flemish economy

Issue 10-01-2014Flanders has a surplus of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients available in waste and residual flows such as household waste water, organic biological waste and manure. This is due, among other things, to the high population density and the intensive agriculture and industry. This surplus constitutes a bottleneck, but at the same time opens up a large potential for reuse and recycling. This emerges from a new MIRA study report compiled by the University of Ghent.

The study presents a substance flow analysis for nitrogen and phosphorus based on accounting and modelling of the flows and stocks of both nutrients within so-called hot spots or nodes of the Flemish economy, households and environment for the reference year 2009. A complete picture is only available for 2009. This reference year also provides a relatively accurate picture of the situation in 2013, because of the relative short time gap. A total of 13 nodes were identified in Flanders, both economic sectors and environmental compartments. For each of these nodes, raw material and end product flows as well as waste, residual and emission flows were quantified for the year 2009, together with their nitrogen and phosphorus content.

The following figure shows the extent of the phosphorus flows through each node of the Flemish economy. In addition to the extent of the total substance flow in a sectoral node, the figure shows the extent of the imports and exports at each node on the scale of Flanders. Imports are a portion of the total substance flow at the input side of the node. In 2009, the phosphorus flows in 11 nodes of the Flemish economy and households varied between 0.01 and 83 ktonnes P. The largest flow passes through the chemical and other industries (83 ktonnes P). The latter include the fertiliser industry, the phosphate industry and the paper industry, with the phosphate industry accounting for the lion's share of processing of phosphorus. The limited interaction with other nodes is reflected in large imports of ores and large exports of processed products.

Figure: Extent of the phosphorus flow, imports and exports per sectoral node (Flanders, 2009)

Figure Extent of the phosphorus flow, imports and exports per sectoral node (Flanders, 2009)

Source: VMM-MIRA

Total imports across all nodes are estimated at 118 ktonnes P, or 118 million kg P. Exports amount to 115 ktonnes P. The difference, 3 ktonnes P, indicates the order of magnitude of environmental losses or emissions, and also accumulation in the environment in 2009. Phosphorus is emitted only to water and soil and a precise estimation of the emissions is included in the MIRA core set 'environmental data'.

It shows that Flanders has a surplus of phosphorus available in waste, residual and emission flows such as household waste water, organic biological waste and animal manure. This provides a large potential for reuse and recycling. Environmental gains can be achieved in the agro-food sectors in particular. Phosphorus can be reused and emissions to water and soil can be reduced.

Read the English summary of the Dutch report ‘Sustainable flow analysis for nitrogen and phosphorus in Flanders’

Study commissioned by MIRA, the Environment Reporting Unit
Research report MIRA/2013/09

researchers: Joeri Coppens, Sofie Stas, Ellen Dolmans, Erik Meers, Siegfried E. Vlaeminck, Jeroen Buysse, UGent en Stijn Overloop, VMM

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