Recycling nutrient resources in waste for food security and environmental sustainability

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Civil & Environmental Engineering


The central aim of the proposed research is to maximise the use of biowastes as a nutrient resource and enable long-term food security in the UK, whilst ensuring food safety and environmental and soil sustainability. The vision is to achieve a paradigm shift where biowastes are no longer considered as a waste, but as a nutrient resource, and used sustainably to ensure food security beyond 2020. Using nutrients from wastes is essential to close the nutrient loop, and in the case of P, the global supply is limited, and its sustainable use has been placed in the top three emerging environmental issues. The research will adopt a 'whole systems approach', encompassing the treatment e.g. AD or MBT, of biowastes from a range of commercial, industrial or municipal sources, through to the soil-plant interactions of biowastes, nutrients and contaminants, to develop innovative and creative processes to improve nutrient content and availability, and minimise contaminant contents, availability and impacts. A key aspect will be minimising risks to the environment when biowastes are used as a nutrient resource; we will use state of the art techniques to examine the fate of nutrients and contaminants in biowaste and amended soil to maximise the agronomic value and protect the environment. The collaborative relationships combine world-leading expertise in waste treatment technologies in AD (University of Southampton) and MBT (University of Leeds) with world-leading expertise in the agronomic and environmental impact of using the resources produced by these processes as a nutrient source (Imperial College London and University of Reading). This collaboration presents unique opportunities for manipulating and managing treatment processes so that, in addition to achieving the other objectives of the process (e.g. maximising biogas production during anaerobic digestion), the nutrient value of the residues is maximised but at minimal risk to the environment. Complementary skills and techniques will be applied to investigate the agronomic and environmental impact of using waste as an environmental resource. For example, expertise at Imperial in quantitative agronomic assessments of nutrient availability by incubation, plant bioassays and field trials, will complement techniques used at Reading such as molecular microbial ecology, isotope ratio mass spectrometry and GC-MS. Within the Catalyst Grant, the collaborating institutions will review the current state of knowledge on recycling nutrient resources in waste, each focusing on their areas of expertise and role in the strategy for the full proposal. This presents a unique opportunity to combine the different aspects together in a cohesive, integrated and holistic assessment. The planned innovative and interdisciplinary programme addresses national and international research needs, and will inform and impact on policy and industry in the UK, Europe and further afield. During the Catalyst Grant, we will conduct a programme of 'Research Strategy Development' workshops, involving participants from the four Universities, and, additionally, a number of key project partners from the water and waste industries, and from Government and the Environment Agency. The programme of activities during the Catalyst Grant will enable us to identify key areas for targeted and hypotheses-driven interdisciplinary research, and define the specific objectives for the full Research Programme.

Planned Impact

The full Research Grant proposal that we aim to develop during the Catalyst Grant on 'Recycling nutrient resources in waste for food security and environmental sustainability' has beneficiaries in the water industry, waste management industry (e.g. the leading waste management companies in the UK), the agricultural and food industries and the renewable energy industry, including AD operators such as AnDigestion Ltd., Agrivert UK Ltd and Marches Biogas. A diverse range of industries produce an organic waste stream, and have the potential to benefit from the research, such as food and drinks, textile and pharmaceutical industries. These industries will benefit from new knowledge regarding the sustainable use of biowastes as a nutrient resource, whilst protecting human health and the environment, and ensuring a sustainable outlet for organic waste streams beyond 2020. Improved confidence in land-application of biowastes will lead to increased recycling to land, and provide a sustainable source of waste-derived nutrients for food production. As a consequence of improved confidence in recycling nutrients from waste, and technologies to improve nutrient availability of biowastes and reduce contaminant content/mobility, the research could lead to, or accelerate, the establishment of new AD plants and waste processing facilities (within the next 3-5 years), and to wealth creation that will benefit the UK economy. Further beneficiaries include the Environment Agency and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), who will benefit from knowledge that will inform decisions on biowastes land application. The UK Government will benefit from technology that contributes to achieving targets for reduction of waste sent to landfill, generation of energy from renewable sources, reduction of GHG emissions and resource efficiency. The UK Government and Society will gain from improved food security, through recycling nutrients contained within biowastes, and the benefits this provides to the economy. In academia, this research will strengthen inter-disciplinary relationships and provide a key contribution to continue to develop world-leading capability in research and training at Imperial College London, the University of Southampton, the University of Leeds and the University of Reading. The knowledge and research skills acquired by the Post doctoral researchers working on the project in AD, MBT, waste management, soil science, biowaste related agronomy and environmental protection could be applied in industry (e.g. waste management, water industry, and agriculture) and the public sector (e.g. policy development).


10 25 50