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About UNEP
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United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Technology, Industry and Economics
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Newsletter and Technical Publications
Freshwater Management Series No. 1

Biosolids Management: An Environmentally Sound Approach
for Managing Sewage Treatment Plant Sludge

An Introductory Guide To Decision-Makers


Establishing a New Biosolids Utilisation System: Challenges and Opportunities

A reasonable person might ask why biosolids utilisation is not the standard practice worldwide if it has so many advantages over other alternatives. The explanation lies in the fact that socio-economic, cultural, political and even interpersonal issues often dominate decision-making processes about ecosystem and health protection and become the determining factors in the choices that we make. Technical and scientific information can influence the outcome but only if it is communicated and understood. When this doesn’t happen, simple, short-term solutions are usually selected. Sound decisions can come from a public consultation process through a consensus-building approach and open communication.

Most successful community-based biosolids utilisation systems have taken fifty years or more to evolve. This evolutionary process has provided time for important issues to be addressed, lessons to be learned and corrections to be made, and trust in the utilisation practice to be established. Countless communities in rapidly developing countries are now in the process of providing environmental services and infrastructure and are grappling with many of the same issues, concerns and choices about municipal sludge and biosolids that first appeared more than half a century ago. Fortunately, these communities have the opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of others and apply these lessons to their own specific conditions and needs. By doing this, a successful system can be established within a timeframe of less than five years. The following case study provides an example of how this can be done.

Photo 4: Biosolids land application, Ciudad Juarez
Photo 4: Biosolids land application, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Source: UNU/INWEH)

The Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Case Study

In 1997, there were no full-scale biosolids utilisation systems in Mexico, and the usual methods for disposal were either direct discharge into watercourses, on-site storage or containment in unregulated landfill sites. Ciudad Juarez, in the State of Chihuahua on the U.S.-Mexico border, was in the process of building two wastewater treatment plants, had an effective industrial pre-treatment and discharge control programme already in place and was in need of a biosolids utilisation system. Financial resources were available, there was a high level of awareness among the public about water conservation and reuse issues, and the municipal administration had developed an comprehensive master plan for sustainable water management.

There were also some challenges. The practice of biosolids utilisation in the adjacent state of Texas was at an early stage of development and this influenced the views of the Ciudad Juarez community. A private firm had just begun to apply biosolids from New York City to rangeland on a Texas ranch 28 miles from Ciudad Juarez and this caused concern among citizens on both sides of the border. Finally, as a major city in Mexico, Ciudad Juarez reflected many of the socio-economic and political characteristics of a developing urban area.

Over a three-year period, the Ciudad Juarez water utility (JMAS, Junta Municipal de Aguas y Saneamiento), with the assistance of the United Nations University International Network on Water, Environment and Health (UNU/INWEH), began a development process that included:

 
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Forming a partnership with the local universities, the federal agricultural research agency (INIFAP), environmental NGOs, professional associations and other stakeholder groups,
 
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Engaging municipalities, government agencies and private firms from Canada and the U.S. to share experiences in land application practices,
  •  Establishing a working, multi-stakeholder development committee,
 
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Holding an average of fifty public information and stakeholder participation meetings per year,
 
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Revising state and municipal regulations to reflect requirements for beneficial utilisation of biosolids,
 
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Conducting a large-scale, land application demonstration project on 30 hectares of farmland through several crop cycles and types,
 
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Establishing a local, multi-stakeholder Biosolids Utilisation Committee (BUC), modelled after an existing BUC in Ontario, Canada, to oversee the system,
 
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Developing and delivering modularised Biosolids Training Programmes for the stakeholder groups involved in biosolids utilisation,
  •  Constructing an on-site biosolids holding facility and developing the bid documents for a land application concession.

Photo 4: Biosolids mixing with soil
Photo 4: Biosolids mixing with soil. (Source: Wastewater Technology Centre, Environment Canada)
 
A sustainable biosolids utilisation system is now in place. There are many factors that contributed to this success, but two stand out as particularly important. The first is the focus on biosolids as a component of the urban water cycle. Authorities in Ciudad Juarez recognise that water and all its basic constituents and added contaminants are continuously re-circulating through the regional ecosystems, and include this concept in their planning and management. For biosolids utilisation, the most important component of the urban water cycle is industrial pre-treatment and discharge control. In the absence of this control mechanism, including regulations, compliance programmes and an enforcement system, industrial discharges can contaminate the municipal sludge to the point where is not suitable for beneficial use. The second contributor to success is the use of a four-step process that systematically integrates all of the technical, scientific, socio-economic, political, cultural, and regulatory requirements.
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