Sustainable Systems Solutions

April 23, 2013

Written By: Megan Barry

Another catastrophic event occurred last week, which was overshadowed for many by what transpired in Boston.  Wednesday night, in the town of West, Texas, an explosion and fire in a fertilizer plant on the outskirts of town killed fourteen and injured around 200.  The cause of the explosion is still unknown; there is no evidence of criminal activity.  It has been speculated that a fire started first and led to the explosion, which indicates that there was a reaction with chemicals involved in the production of fertilizer.  Over 1000 residents were evacuated from their homes, partly due to concern about the volatility of another tank at the plant.  In areas impacted by the explosion, authorities began to allow residents to return briefly on Saturday.  There is concern about exposure of firefighters and town residents in close proximity to the plant to anhydrous ammonia, a chemical involved in the explosion that can lead to death in cases of exposure to high concentrations.

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Fertilizers most often contain phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, calcium, sulfur, and other micronutrients.  The production of fertilizer isa complex process eight-stage process that involves the burning of natural gas and steam, the production of nitric acid and ammonia, and the use of sulfuric acid and potassium chloride.  With the amount of volatile chemicals and compounds involved, an uncontrolled reaction is bound to occur at some point.

Aside from the fact that this was a devastating event, why am I focusing on it in a sustainability-related blog?  Sustainability literature emphasizes systems thinking, which allows one to look at a problem holistically with an “outside the box” approach. In the case of this recent explosion, sustainable systems thinking offers a solution, in a couple of ways.  First, it is mono-culture farming that depletes the nutrients of the soil and creates the supposed need for fertilizers.  If farming were localized and crops diversified, soil quality degradation might not be an issue.  Second, the production of natural fertilizer through composting is not a dangerous process; it is a closed-loop system that would take care of our waste and cut water use without the use of chemicals.  It may be a concern that composting might not produce enough fertilizer, but towns have begun to experiment with this on a larger scale in the form of composting toilets at parks and beaches. In addition, the demand for large quantities would be resolved by local farming and individual compost production.  Hopefully these local movements foreshadow a larger transition towards more sustainable waste processing and fertilizer production, which would not only be healthier and economically savvy, but might help to avoid tragedies like the explosion that occurred in Texas last week.

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