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5.6 Sludge reuse

Raw sludge from activated sludge treatment plants has been applied directly onto agricultural land particularly in the United Kingdom. This practice is considered unsatisfactory because of the presence of pathogens in the sludge in high numbers. There has been no thorough study, however, which has shown that there is an increase in the risk of acquiring illnesses associated with pathogens in the raw sludge when proper handling procedure and non-entry to the land following application is observed.

Reuse of composted sludge as a soil conditioner in agriculture and horticulture returns carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and elements essential for plant growth back to the soil (Section 2 (2.4)). Less chemical fertilisers are required and the organic carbon helps to improve soil structure for soil aeration, water percolation and root growth. The nitrogen and phosphorus are also released gradually for plant uptake compared to the more soluble chemical fertilisers. The potential of leaching of the nutrients to ground or surface water by rainfall run-off is much reduced. Pathogens and heavy metals can, however, limit the reuse of sludge.

Pathogens should be reduced to levels that do not pose health hazards to workers handling the sludge, potential health hazards from the spreading of helminth eggs and from horticultural produce contaminated by pathogens. Composting of the sludge to attain a temperature of 55 °C for two weeks followed by windrow maturation produces compost that meets these conditions. Stabilised sludge which has been dewatered and dried on sand beds to attain a low moisture content can meet the same conditions.

Heavy metals and toxic chemicals are difficult to remove from sludge. Preventing these chemicals from entering the wastewater or sludge should be the aim of wastewater management for sludge intended for reuse in agriculture or horticulture. Reuse may still be possible for purposes such as mine site rehabilitation, highway landscaping or for landfill cover. Sludge which has been conditioned for reuse is also called 'biosolids'.

Conversion of sludge, which is heavily contaminated by heavy metals or toxic chemicals, to oil is technically feasible (Enersludge process). A full scale plant is operating in Perth, Western Australia (Bridle et al., 2000). The conversion is by a pyrolysis process, heating dried sludge to a high temperature in the absence of oxygen or with a controlled amount of oxygen. Capital and running costs of an oil from sludge process are high.


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