By Adam Krantz, CEO, National Association of Clean Water Agencies

April 27, 2016

Consider phosphorus. It’s the 11th most abundant element on Earth, absolutely essential for human survival because plants need it to grow. But the amount of accessible phosphorus is limited and there are no substitutes. When we run out of phosphorus, we run out of food. Yikes!

Phosphorus in streams and rivers is harmful – a form of pollution – because it causes algae to grow, which sucks up oxygen leaving little for aquatic life. Phosphorus on farm fields and lawns is vital.

To address this problem of phosphorus in waterways, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) has invested $30 million in plant retrofits at its Stickney Water Reclamation Plant (WRP) and has partnered with Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies Inc., a Vancouver-based company that has developed an innovative phosphorus recovery process. Beginning next year, the MWRD will remove 1,150 tons of phosphorus annually from wastewater treated at the Stickney plant and convert it into a slow-release fertilizer that will reduce pollution and generate revenue. Even better, the fertilizer made with these phosphorus crystals is NOT water-soluble, meaning when it is applied to farm fields, there won’t be harmful runoff polluting nearby streams.

At MWRD, we are proud of this groundbreaking – even game-changing – achievement.  But explaining highly-technical projects to the public is not always easy.  We have to engage people’s hearts as well as their heads – and talking about dollars invested and tons of phosphorus recovered doesn’t always get us where we need to go.

Happily, in Chicago, a group of artists has interpreted the technical process of phosphorus recovery in an art installation to build awareness of a critical water quality issue, highlight new technologies that can be part of the solution, and suggest ways people can get involved. Titled Cycle P15, after phosphorus’ atomic number, the art piece was a featured installation of Chicago Artists Month and was sponsored by public relations firm Terracom, Ostara, and engineering firm Black & Veatch.

Cycle P15 is artwork in the form of an interactive game, inspired by classic games like Twister. The players themselves become the game pieces, guided by colored circles on the floor, which acts as the game board. Players advance in the game by answering water and phosphorus-related trivia questions. The colored circles contain images representing steps in the phosphorus-recovery process, and they eventually lead the players to an easel that displays three augmented-reality (AR) artworks. (AR is a cutting-edge medium that allows players to watch images transform into animated artistic expressions). All of the game’s elements work together to tell the story of how phosphorus transforms from a life-giving nutrient to a pollutant, and back again to a nutrient.

The interactive installation serves as a creative way to celebrate MWRD’s innovation and engage the public, and hundreds of people visited the installation while it was on display throughout November.