Commission moots stricter EU sludge controls

Revision of 1986 directive to include first limits on organics, tighter heavy metal standards

Draft new EU standards on levels of pollutants permitted in organic waste sludge used as fertiliser on agricultural and reclaimed land have been proposed by the European Commission's environment directorate. The proposals include the first limits on organic pollutants such as dioxins and would considerably tighten current EU permissible levels of heavy metals.

Farmers dispose of various types of sludge on land, resulting from treated urban sewage and industrial and commercial wastes. Both sides gain from the arrangement: farmers have a cheap supply of fertiliser and local authorities and businesses have a cheap disposal route.

Recent food safety scares have put sludge quality firmly on the EU's agenda. Last year, French farmers threatened a waste disposal crisis by refusing to accept local authority-supplied sludge without guarantees that its dioxin content was safe. In a separate incident, French companies were alleged to have used unauthorised sludge to manufacture animal feed.

In a working paper on how to revise the 1986 directive on sludge use in agriculture, the Commission says it intends to "maintain or improve" the present rate of recycling nutrients back to the land while allaying consumer concerns over safety. In the paper, it proposes tough new limits on heavy metals, and, for the first time, limits on organic pollutants (see tables).

The proposed limits on heavy metals have been weakened slightly after EU government objections to an earlier draft; stricter limits projected to come into force in 2005 and 2010 have now been downgraded to "medium-term" and "long-term" objectives. The UK, in particular, is expected to have difficulty meeting the target for copper because of its widespread use in pipes and tubes.

However, the limits on organic compounds are likely to be more controversial. They have been compiled from various national laws, but some member states believe that legal standards are unnecessary. The Commission expects to make a formal proposal on revising the directive within a year. The new rules are unlikely to be finalised in less than two years.

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Proposed limits on heavy metals (mg/kg dry matter)
          Current   Proposed   Proposed     Proposed
          limits    initial    medium-term  long-term
-----------------------------------------------------
Cadmium    20-40       10          5            2
Copper   1000-1750   1000        800          600
Mercury    16-25       10          5            2
Nickel    300-400     300        200          100
Lead      750-1200    750        500          200
Zinc     2500-4000   2500       2000         1500
-----------------------------------------------------

----------------------------------------------
Proposed limits on organic compounds
(mg/kg dry matter except * ngTE/kg dry matter)
Compound                  Limit value
----------------------------------------------
AOX                             500
LAS                            2600
DEHP                            100
NEP                              50
PAH                               6
PCB                             0.2
Dioxins                         100*
Furans                          100*
----------------------------------------------

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111.

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