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The Lawn Phosphorus Firestorm: The Flames Are Warming

New Laws Wrongfully Restrict Organic Fertilizers

After more than 70 years in business, Milorganite is finding its product illegal as a lawn fertilizer in some states due to the 2 percent phosphorus in the bag. Other organic fertilizers are fighting the same issue.

After more than 70 years in business, Milorganite is finding its product illegal as a lawn fertilizer in some states due to the 2 percent phosphorus in the bag. Other organic fertilizers are fighting the same issue.

The coming year is shaping up as a major battleground and your lawn may be caught in the crosshairs of a fight that stretches from Maine to Washington state.

The issue is phosphorus, denoted by the letter P and the number 15 on the Periodic Table of Elements that hung in your high school science class. It’s also the middle number on your lawn fertilizer bag and, if a growing number of lawmakers continue to get their way, that number will soon read zero (0) if it doesn’t already.

“Legislators always seem to like to take things to logical extremes, which results in illogical legislation,” said Paul Sachs today by phone. He has been selling organic fertilizers for longer than just about anyone else in the nation as owner of North Country Organics in Bradford, Vt.

When Great Lakes states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota first began looking at bans on phosphorus in lawn fertilizers a decade ago, environmentalists like us touted the movement as fundamentally positive. Phosphorus that runs off into fresh water supplies can produce massive algae blooms that suck oxygen out of lakes, rivers or streams and leave them as a eutrified, putrid mess. Homeowners and some lawn care operators, who tend to think more is better when it comes to the application of fertilizers and weed controls, were being fingered as the culprits.

And when professor John Lehman’s research started flowing out of Michigan, showing that the lawn phosphorus ban in that state was in fact reducing phosphorus in the lake, his findings gave massive amounts of fuel to the discussion of phosphorus bans. Now, virtually every state from Maine to Virginia on the Eastern Seaboard has some sort of lawn phosphorus legislation already in place or percolating.

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So far, so good, most of us thought . . . except for the one massive consequence that Paul Sachs predicted way back in 2007: many organic fertilizers were going to be legislated out of business. That’s because it’s easy to remove phosphorus from the synthetic chemical fertilizers sold by Scotts Miracle Gro, Bayer and others; meanwhile it’s virtually impossible to remove all the phosphorus from many natural organic fertilizers derived from animals and plants.

As one fertilizer manufacturer said in this SafeLawns interview last year, these phosphorus bans “will effectively kill the organic fertilizer industry.”

ALL PHOSPHORUS IS NOT CREATED EQUALLY

As one of the big three macronutrients — nitrogen and potassium are the others — phosphorus is essential for the general health and vigor of all plants. Among the benefits it provides are stimulated root development, increased stalk and stem strength, overall vigor and increased resistance to plant diseases.

Without phosphorus, in other words, we wouldn’t have lawns as we know them. Any grass that did grow would be wispy and of pale, pinkish green in color. Lawns wouldn’t have the ability to make it through any drought stress of summer or long, harsh winters, either, without phosphorus — so it’s traditionally been added to our fertilizer mixes in somewhere between one-tenth and equal measures to the nitrogen that’s included in the bag.

Proponents of the bans state that most soils in the U.S. already have enough phosphorus in place for established lawns and that the only time you need to apply phosphorus to lawns is during overseeding or repairing bare areas. In fact, in the 11 states where phosphorus is legislated, all of them allow for phosphorus to be put down when overseeding.

The phosphorus cycle explains the various ways plants can uptake phosphorus. (UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA)

The phosphorus cycle explains the various ways plants can uptake phosphorus. (UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA)

Though phosphorus deficiency can be difficult to diagnose on lawns, it shows up more visibly on grass's cousin, the corn plant — which shows vivid red blotches when P is not available.

Though phosphorus deficiency can be difficult to diagnose on lawns, it shows up more visibly on grass’s cousin, the corn plant — which shows vivid red blotches when P is not available.

But can lawns really thrive without any additional phosphorus being added? If clippings are left on the lawn, and the lawn is otherwise treated organically so the soil is alive with microorganisms, the answer is most always yes. Mother Nature has the ability to “mineralize” phosphorus from leaves, clippings and other organic matter and turn it into a form plants can use (see chart, at left).

But Paul Sachs says he has customers call him all the time saying their lawn is turning the wrong color ever since they stopped using phosphorus in their fertilizers. Maybe the mineralization process isn’t functioning well, or maybe the homeowners are bagging their clippings.

“The edges of the blades of grass will turn red in response to a phosphorus deficiency,” he said. “The result of a prolonged period without phosphorus will be weaker stands of grass, which ultimately will lead to more erosion of top soil and even more of a nutrient load in the lakes after all.

“The legislators, in other words, will have worsened the very problem that they’re trying to correct.”

Some of those legislators in favor of no lawn phosphorus frustrate organic lawn fertilizer manufacturers in one other significant way: by not differentiating between organically derived sources such as composts and plant and animal fertilizers, or the chemical products that include synthetic forms of phosphorus. The synthetic phosphorus has been treated to be more water soluble, which automatically makes it more prone to leaching during and after a heavy rain event. Within organic fertilizers, the phosphorus is usually bound tightly to iron or aluminum and won’t release and leach readily.

Attorney Tom Crawford has been fighting this battle on behalf of his company, Milorganite, for more years than he likes to count.

“Legislators just don’t want to hear about these differences (in phosphorus) because it confuses them,” he said. “And then there are the lobbyists for the chemical industry who will testify with a straight face that all phosphorus is created equally. It’s a bold-faced lie, of course, but who’s the legislator going to believe?”

The result has been a mishmash of laws. In Illinois, lawn care professionals can’t apply phosphorus to lawns without a soil test that proves the customer needs it — but the rules don’t stop the customer from applying the phosphorus themselves. Four other states, New York, Maryland, Washington and Vermont, effectively make no distinction between organic and synthetic fertilizers in their bans, according to Crawford. On the other hand, New Jersey, Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota all exempt organic fertilizers from their bans — primarily because Crawford personally fought long and hard to make those state officials understand the differences. He has a scientific study from Florida that shows Milorganite — made from composted human waste — is seven times less likely to leach through the soil than synthetic phosphorus. That same study shows that phosphorus bound in compost is also far less prone to leaching than synthetic sources.

That data alone ought to be enough to persuade lawmakers, but as Crawford approaches his retirement next year, he echoes Paul Sachs’ sentiments about illogical legislation.

“After a while, you just shake your head,” he said earlier today. “You just hope that Pennsylvania, which will be next in line with a phosphorus ban, will follow New Jersey and not New York or Maryland.”

The end of Crawford’s career is significant, not just for Milorganite and other biosolids fertilizers companies, but for the organic fertilizer industry as a whole. Few other organic companies can afford to maintain full-time staff attorneys to assure their products’ rightful shelf space. It’s not inconceivable that other states could follow New York’s lead without someone like Crawford to stand up to bad legislation.

THE REALITY ON THE GROUND

Much of the battle is being fought at retail centers where bags full of lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus will either be illegal to sell, or will carry a stern warning label. Since many of the newest laws in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and elsewhere really don’t take full effect until 2012, the entire organic fertilizer industry seems to be holding its collective breath.

“I have no idea how they think they’ll implement this, much less enforce it,” said Sachs, who said his company has seen no drop in sales — yet — related to the phosphorus laws that are hitting like dominos across the Northeast.

A quick Internet search didn’t unearth any prosecuted cases based on the phosphorus laws and reason dictates that the no-phosphorus craze in the U.S. will probably police itself, much like the no pesticide laws have done in Canada. In other words most people will try to follow the law; a certain percentage won’t hear about the law and a few others probably won’t abide it if they do hear.

The bottom line is that reduction of phosphorus in lawn fertilizers is a great intention. Responsible states like New Jersey, that quantify how much can be put down — without eliminating P entirely — have it right. The old days of putting 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer everywhere need to end immediately.

The sad irony of all this, though, is that if everyone simply tended their lawns organically, and let the soil organisms do the work of cycling the natural phosphorus through the system, then green lawns and clear water could easily co-exist. That organic fertilizers are being lumped with their chemical counterparts is an ignorant travesty that’s not supported by sound science.

In the end, our advice is two-fold for both the companies that call us looking for updates and the homeowners who want to know how to be upstanding citizens within the law. First, keep paying attention to these phosphorus bans and make sure organic products like compost, fish meal, chicken manure and alfalfa meal get the exemptions within the laws.

And, second? Overseed your lawn every fall. You should do that anyway . . . and within the letter of law in these phosphorus bans, you’ll be allowed to apply fertilizer containing phosphorus at that time.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1024
  • John Weiss

    I hope you are well and thank you for all of your work.

    Your timing on the blog is amazing. We began working with a Madison, Wisconsin based law firm to begin to create a nationwide exemption for organic fertilizers when it comes to phosphorus application on lawns. We went before a Wisconsin Assembly committee in 2009 and convinced the legislature to include a full exemption for organic fertilizers made from manure and sewage sludge with respect to a phosphorus ban. We were able to explain that the phosphorus in these organic fertilizers is ALREADY HERE in our waste system (i.e. manure, sewage,etc.) By banning P on lawns, the state was eliminating the use of the phosphorus already in the waste stream on lawns — meaning it had to go back to the farm fields where runoff is a much larger problem. As Dr. John Stein of the University of Wisconsin has pointed out “We measure runoff on lawns in grams per acre. We measure runoff on farm fields in pounds per acre.” He often pointed out that there is very little nutrient movement on lawns as they act like a “nutrient sink”. Phosphorus bans without organic exemptions effectively eliminate what is a common sense solution to our waste stream issues. More importantly, they are effectively killing the organic fertilizer business.

    I could go on for some time on the bureaucratic nightmare the state by state phosphorus regulations have caused for our company and others like it. There is a reason Scott’s has gone phosphorus-free nationwide in all of their lawn products. It has everything to do with the fact that they tired of having to track down the rules on a state by state basis for the packaging of their products. If a $2.8 billion company can’t keep up with the rules, how in the world can Chickity Doo Doo or any other organic fertilizer company do it? We need to have a nationwide organic exemption to level the playing field. I would love to talk to you directly about how we can band together to get this legislation passed. We have begun to do so.

    For more on this, refer to my August 6, 2010 guest blog on the SafeLawns website where I discussed this in further detail. I believe we can tie in the nationwide organic exemption to a national strategy on manure and sewage waste handling. It makes sense and we have the ear of the right people. We would like to use the Wisconsin exemption as the model for a national law.

    Thank you,

    John Weiss
    Chickity Doo Doo

  • http://www.neiwpcc.org Clair Ryan

    Hi Paul – Hopefully you remember me from the nonpoint source conference in Saratoga in May. Thanks for a great, thought-provoking article.

    To be honest, I can see both sides of the organic P ban argument. I think the argument that states are trying to “legislate organics out of existence” are a little hyperbolic in many cases. North Country Organics serves many markets (agricultural, green house, athletic turf, home owners) and thus sells a couple dozen different products. Their “Nature’s Turf” is the only product that would fall victim to an across-the-board P ban for turf fertilizers. Incidentally, if “Nature’s Turf” is a manipulated manure or compost product, it falls outside of the definition of “phosphorus fertilizer” that Vt. used in its law, and would not be subject to the ban there anyway.

    I know that Milorganite is strongly marketed towards the turf market, and that the bans could really hurt them. I think it’s important to recognize that even if a low percentage of the P in Milorganite leaches, there is still the potential for water quality impacts. If you apply Milorganite according to the bag label, you end up applying 0.288 lbs P per 1000 sqft of lawn. If the average lawn is 1/5 acre (8700 sqft), the you apply ~2.5 lbs P per lawn. If 20% leaches (Figure ES-1 from the Florida paper evaluating Milorganite P leaching), you wind up with a half pound of active phosphorus running off an average lawn after each application and up to 2 lbs running off per year (assuming 4 applications per year, which the bag label recommends). Considering that water quality impairments are felt at any more than 0.037 mg/L, a couple of pounds of phosphorus running off per lawn every year is not insignificant. To be fair though, the phosphorus runoff from a Milorganite treated lawn is small compared to the guy throwing 10-10-10 on his lawn (horror!) and by other largely unaddressed P sources (agriculture, urban impervious surfaces, etc.)

    I do see how the recent P bans can be seen as “picking on the little guy” though. The bans don’t take into account the more holistic and understudied benefits of using more naturally-based/molecularly complex products on soil health. They don’t take into account the energy saved by taking nitrogen from “waste products” like manure, feathers and wastewater biosolids instead of relying on the energy-intensive Haber process. If the market for biosolid fertilizer disappears, then the biosolids have to be dealt with in some other most likely not eco-friendly way (incineration, land filling, etc.).

    Most of all, I think it’s a shame that there doesn’t seem to have been much dialogue between the states who have worked on this issue and the organic/biosolids industry players. We (New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission) are working with our members states (6 New England states + NY) on region-wide voluntary guidelines to reduce nutrient runoff from turf fertilizers. We’ve been specifically instructed by the state environmental agency commissioners to work with fertilizer manufacturers on the guidance and will be reaching out to Safelawns, NCO, Milorganite and several other major organic fertilizer manufacturers shortly. Hopefully we will be able to at least open up some discussion!

    Best,
    Clair Ryan (cryan@neiwpcc.org)

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