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Environ Int. 2009 Jan;35(1):142-56. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2008.06.009. Epub 2008 Aug 8.

A critical review of the bioavailability and impacts of heavy metals in municipal solid waste composts compared to sewage sludge.

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Centre for Environmental Control and Waste Management, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus, London, SW7 2AZ, UK.


The content, behaviour and significance of heavy metals in composted waste materials is important from two potentially conflicting aspects of environmental legislation in terms of: (a) defining end-of-waste criteria and increasing recycling of composted residuals on land and (b) protecting soil quality by preventing contamination. This review examines the effects of heavy metals in compost and amended soil as a basis for achieving a practical and sustainable balance between these different policy objectives, with particular emphasis on agricultural application. All types of municipal solid waste (MSW) compost contain more heavy metals than the background concentrations present in soil and will increase their contents in amended soil. Total concentrations of heavy metals in source-segregated and greenwaste compost are typically below UK PAS100 limits and mechanical segregated material can also comply with the metal limits in UK PAS100, although this is likely to be more challenging. Zinc and Pb are numerically the elements present in the largest amounts in MSW-compost. Lead is the most limiting element to use of mechanically-segregated compost in domestic gardens, but concentrations are typically below risk-based thresholds that protect human health. Composted residuals derived from MSW and greenwaste have a high affinity for binding heavy metals. There is general consensus in the scientific literature that aerobic composting processes increase the complexation of heavy metals in organic waste residuals, and that metals are strongly bound to the compost matrix and organic matter, limiting their solubility and potential bioavailability in soil. Lead is the most strongly bound element and Ni the weakest, with Zn, Cu and Cd showing intermediate sorption characteristics. The strong metal sorption properties of compost produced from MSW or sewage sludge have important benefits for the remediation of metal contaminated industrial and urban soils. Compost and sewage sludge additions to agricultural and other soils, with background concentrations of heavy metals, raise the soil content and the availability of heavy metals for transfer into crop plants. The availability in soil depends on the nature of the chemical association between a metal with the organic residual and soil matrix, the pH value of the soil, the concentration of the element in the compost and the soil, and the ability of the plant to regulate the uptake of a particular element. There is no evidence of increased metal release into available forms as organic matter degrades in soil once compost applications have ceased. However, there is good experimental evidence demonstrating the reduced bioavailability and crop uptake of metals from composted biosolids compared to other types of sewage sludge. It may therefore be inferred that composting processes overall are likely to contribute to lowering the availability of metals in amended soil compared to other waste biostabilisation techniques. The total metal concentration in compost is important in controlling crop uptake of labile elements, like Zn and Cu, which increases with increasing total content of these elements in compost. Therefore, low metal materials, which include source-segregated and greenwaste composts, are likely to have inherently lower metal availabilities overall, at equivalent metal loading rates to soil, compared to composted residuals with larger metal contents. This is explained because the compost matrix modulates metal availability and materials low in metals have stronger sorption capacity compared to high metal composts. Zinc is the element in sewage sludge-treated agricultural soil identified as the main concern in relation to potential impacts on soil microbial activity and is also the most significant metal in compost with regard to soil fertility and microbial processes. However, with the exception of one study, there is no other tangible evidence demonstrating negative impacts of heavy metals applied to soil in compost on soil microbial processes and only positive effects of compost application on the microbial status and fertility of soil are reported. The negative impacts on soil microorganisms apparent in one long-term field experiment could be explained by the exceptionally high concentrations of Cd and other elements in the applied compost, and of Cd in the compost-amended soil, which are unrepresentative of current practice and compost quality. The metal contents of source-segregated MSW or greenwaste compost are smaller compared to mechanically-sorted MSW-compost and sewage sludge, and low metal materials also have the smallest potential metal availabilities. Composting processes also inherently reduce metal availability compared to other organic waste stabilisation methods. Therefore, risks to the environment, human health, crop quality and yield, and soil fertility, from heavy metals in source-segregated MSW or greenwaste-compost are minimal. Furthermore, composts produced from mechanically-segregated MSW generally contain fewer metals than sewage sludge used as an agricultural soil improver under controlled conditions. Consequently, the metal content of mechanically-segregated MSW-compost does not represent a barrier to end-use of the product. The application of appropriate preprocessing and refinement technologies is recommended to minimise the contamination of mechanically-segregated MSW-compost as far as practicable. In conclusion, the scientific evidence indicates that conservative, but pragmatic limits on heavy metals in compost may be set to encourage recycling of composted residuals and contaminant reduction measures, which at the same time, also protect the soil and environment from potentially negative impacts caused by long-term accumulation of heavy metals in soil.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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