Commission presses ahead with strategy for sludges and biowaste

A draft discussion document on biowastes and sludges has been circulated by the European Commission in preparation for stakeholder discussions on a new thematic strategy on soil.1 The paper reaffirms plans for Directives on composting and sewage sludge.

The new document sets the course towards publication of a thematic strategy on soil in September. It follows an initial discussion paper in 2002 which highlighted a variety of pressures on soil quality across the EU (ENDS Report 327, p 51 ).

The Commission has now decided that work on the proposed Directives on sludge and biowaste should form an integral part of the process of developing the soil strategy. This is because applications of treated sludges and composts represent important opportunities to improve soil quality provided that pollution risks can be avoided.

  • Sludge: Proposals to revise the 1986 Directive on sewage sludge in agriculture have been circulating for more than four years. Member States including the UK have been fighting against some of the proposals on the grounds that they would block sludge spreading from many sewage works, leaving little alternative but incineration (ENDS Reports 322, pp 48-49 , and 299, pp 45-46 ).

    The new document reaffirms the Commission's intention to revise the Directive, and to broaden it to include industrial sludges fit for land spreading such as paper and textile sludges. The scope should also be extended to non-agricultural land, the paper says. Use restrictions would be set in accordance with sludge quality.

    However, the Commission now proposes the goal of making 75% of urban sludge suitable in principle for land spreading within 20 years. This is to be achieved by reducing the loading of pollutants in the sewer and using advanced sludge treatments. High quality sludges would incur fewest restrictions.

    The paper says that the current limits on heavy metals in sludge for spreading on land "could" be lowered. The wording signals something of a retreat from earlier proposals to revise the Directive: "The threshold limits should allow the use on land of the majority of sludges produced in the EU with the exception of the most polluted ones," it says.

    However, the Commission goes on to say that the threshold for heavy metals in soil could be reduced to better reflect background levels in "natural" agricultural soils.

    "The proposed heavy metals threshold in soils would be inherently precautionary and aim at preserving agricultural soil quality, and thus farming opportunities, for future generations." The paper also reaffirms the Commission's desire to introduce guideline values - omitted from the 1986 Directive - for some organic compounds. It proposes setting such values for persistent, toxic and/or bioaccumulative organics.

  • Biowaste: Proposals for a Directive on composting and biodegradable wastes have also been circulating for some years (ENDS Reports 314, pp 51-52  and 309, pp 49-50 ). Official commitment to such legislation was underlined in the 2002 EU Regulation on animal by-products, in which the Commission promised to prepare a Directive on biowaste by the end of 2004.

    In the new document, the Commission goes to some length to draw a distinction between "composts" and the lower quality "stabilised biowastes", both of which are to be controlled under the new Directive. The paper dwells on biowaste from municipal sources, making it unclear how industrial wastes might be affected.

    Separate collection of biodegradable wastes is identified as being the key to a successful compost strategy - but it would be up to local authorities whether to opt for kerbside or bring collection systems. "Compost should be considered a product only if it has been produced from separately collected biowaste," the paper says.

    The paper discusses the idea of requiring separate collection of the biowaste fraction of municipal waste. However, it also says that the existing diversion targets in the landfill Directive might be considered sufficient

    The Commission believes that EU-wide quality requirements would be essential in establishing a healthy market for compost. They would set limits on pollutants and pathogens, and composts would be classified according to the level of impurities and nutrients, with different qualities being appropriate for different uses. The Directive would apply labelling requirements relating to organic matter, nutrient content, pH, salinity and pollutants, as well as to appropriate end uses.

    All biological treatment plants would have to obtain environmental permits. Minimum process requirements should be laid down, as well as sanitisation requirements with respect to animal and human welfare - signalling that the new permits might embrace the biosecurity requirements of the authorisations required under the animal by-products regime as well as environmental protection requirements under waste law.

    An important step forward for composters is that the Commission is looking at classifying plants producing high quality composts as "recovery" operations - ensuring that their products need not be regulated as wastes. However, this provision would not apply to digestion residues from anaerobic digestion unless they were composted.

    Separate requirements would be imposed on facilities for treating mixed municipal waste or residual waste. "To avoid confusion with compost produced from separately collected waste, the residue from MBT [mechanical/biological treatment] should not be called compost," the paper says. "Its application should be restricted only to land where food and feed crops are not cultivated - eg for landscaping purposes."

    On the plus side for advocates of MBT, however, the Commission puts forward the idea of writing the Directive so as to define MBT residues as non-biodegradable waste as long as certain parameters regarding fermentability are met.

    The issue is a concern to UK local authorities hoping to use MBT as a treatment prior to landfill disposal. Were such residues to be considered biodegradable municipal waste, the value of MBT in complying with landfill Directive diversion targets would be badly compromised.

    Last November, Environment Minister Elliot Morley said that MBT would count towards landfill diversion targets as long as the process reduced the waste's biodegradable content (ENDS Report 346, pp 36-37 ).

    But he signalled that the Environment Agency would have to weigh up the reduction in biodegradable content attributable to the treatment process, and that it was unlikely that such treatments would result in zero biodegradable activity. The statement left local authorities in an uncertain position which the forthcoming EU Directive could help to resolve.

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