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United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Technology, Industry and Economics
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5. Sludge treatment, reuse and disposal

Sludge is produced from the treatment of wastewater in on-site (e.g. septic tank) and off-site (e.g. activated sludge) systems. This is inherently so because a primary aim of wastewater treatment is removing solids from the wastewater. In addition, soluble organic substances are converted to bacterial cells, and the latter is removed from the wastewater. Sludge is also produced from the treatment of stormwater (Section 4.3), although it is likely to be less organic in nature compared to wastewater sludge.

Bucket latrine and vault latrines store faecal sludge, which needs to be collected and treated. These two types of latrine are not discussed in Section 4, because no treatment is involved at the latrines. In the former case human excreta is deposited in a bucket and the content of the bucket is emptied daily, usually at night giving the term ‘night soilEto the faecal sludge. In the latter the excreta is stored in a vault for a longer period of up to two weeks before removal. The content of the vault should preferably be removed mechanically.

The characteristics of sludge vary widely from relatively fresh faecal materials generated in bucket latrines to sludge which has undergone bacterial decomposition for over a year in a double pit latrine. The treatment required is therefore dependent on the characteristics of the sludge. The former may contain large numbers of pathogens, whereas the latter will contain much less due to pathogen die-off. Sludge should, however, always be handled with care to avoid contact with pathogens. Sludge may be contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants, especially when industrial wastes are disposed into the sewer. Pre-treatment of industrial wastes is therefore essential before discharge to the sewer. Treatment of sludge contaminated with high concentrations of heavy metals or toxic chemicals will be more difficult and the potential for re-use of the sludge will be limited.

Faecal sludge contains essential nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) and is potentially beneficial as fertilisers for plants. The organic carbon in the sludge, once stabilised, is also desirable as a soil conditioner, because it provides improved soil structure for plant roots.

Options for sludge treatment include stabilisation, thickening, dewatering, drying and incineration. The latter is most costly, because fuel is needed and air pollution control requires extensive treatment of the combustion gases. It can be used when the sludge is heavily contaminated with heavy metals or other undesirable pollutants. Prevention of contamination of the sludge by industrial wastes is preferable to incineration. A conversion process to produce oil from sludge has been developed, which can be suitable for heavily contaminated sludge (Skrypsi-Mantele, et al 2000). The costs of treatment of sludge are generally of the same order as the costs of removing the sludge from the wastewater.

5.1 Stabilisation

Faecal sludge collected from bucket or vault latrines has a very high biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and is generally putrid and odorous. Primary and secondary sludges from an activated sludge treatment plant also have a high BOD and may be difficult to dewater. Even sludge from a septic tank, which has undergone bacterial decomposition over at least a year, still has a high BOD. Stabilisation is the term used to denote the process of BOD reduction. The stabilisation process can be carried out under aerobic or anaerobic conditions.

Aerobic stabilisation of primary and secondary sludges can be carried out in an aeration tank in the same manner as in an activated sludge process. Because of the high oxygen requirement, this process is energy intensive and costs are high. Aerobic stabilisation requires less energy when carried out as part of a composting process. For composting of sludge, its solids content should be increased to at least 15 % so that it can be handled as a solid. Thickening and dewatering (see below) of primary and secondary sludges are required to achieve the required solids content. Faecal sludge may contain high enough solids. Mixing with dry materials such as dry sawdust may assist with achieving the required solids content as well attaining the required carbon to nitrogen ratio for composting.

5.2 Composting

Composting is an aerobic bacterial decomposition process to stabilise organic wastes and produce humus (compost). Compost contains nutrients and organic carbon which are excellent soil conditioners. Composting takes place naturally on a forest floor where organic materials (leaf litter, animal wastes) are converted to more stable organic materials (humus) and the nutrients are released and made available for plant uptake. The process is slow on a forest floor, but can be accelerated under optimum conditions.

The optimum conditions for composting are a moisture content of about 50 %, a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 25 to 30, and temperature of 55 oC. Because wastewater sludge is rich in nutrients, its carbon to nitrogen ratio is low (5 to 10). It is also high in moisture. Addition of dry sawdust, which is very high in carbon to nitrogen ratio (500) can adjust both the moisture and carbon to nitrogen ratio. Other waste materials that can be used for this purpose are mulched garden wastes, forest wastes and shredded newspaper.

Composting can be carried out in a specially built composter, such as an inclined rotating cylinder, fed on one end with the raw materials, and the aerated product collected at the other end. As the materials are slowly tumbled over a period of about one week, they are mixed and aerated. Because bacterial decomposition produces heat, temperatures in the insulated composter can easily reach 55oC. The immature compost is then windrowed for at least 12 weeks to allow the composting process to complete, with occasional turning of the windrow.

Composting can be more simply carried out in windrows (Figure 32). Regular turning of the windrows assists with mixing of the materials and more importantly supply the oxygen to the bacteria. Temperatures can reach 55 oC, because compost has a good heat insulating property. Turning of the compost also ensures that all parts of the windrow reach the required 55oC essential for pathogen destruction. Turning is required every two to three days in the first two weeks when temperature is 55oC or above. After this period frequent turning of the compost windrow is not required as less heat is generated and less oxygen is required while the compost undergoes maturation.

5.3 Anaerobic digestion

Anaerobic digestion is a bacterial decomposition process that stabilises organic wastes and produces a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide gas (biogas). The heat value of methane is the same as natural petroleum gas, and biogas is valuable as an energy source. Anaerobic digestion is usually carried out in a specially built digester, where the content is mixed and the digester maintained at 35 oC by combusting the biogas produced. After digestion the sludge is passed to a sedimentation tank where the sludge is thickened. Biogas is collected from the digester (Figure 33). The thickened sludge requires further treatment prior to reuse or disposal.

Anaerobic digestion can also be carried out at a slower rate in an unmixed tank or pond.  Covering is usually by a UV resistant plastic sheet, because of the large area needed to be covered, and biogas is collected from the top of the sheet.  Storage of biogas can be in a cylindrical tank with a floating roof.  The cylindrical roof floats on water and its position is determined by the volume of the gas stored under the pressure of the roof.  Biogas can also be stored in a balloon, but only under low pressure.

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