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Summaries of EU Legislation

Using sewage sludge in farming

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Using sewage sludge in farming

Directive 86/278 - soil protection when sewage sludge is used in agriculture


Council Directive 86/278/EEC of 12 June 1986 on the protection of the environment, and in particular of the soil, when sewage sludge is used in agriculture



It sets rules on how farmers can use sewage sludge as a fertiliser, to prevent it harming the environment and human health, by compromising the quality of the soil or surface and ground water.

To this end, it sets limits on the concentrations allowed in soil of 7 heavy metals that may be toxic to plants and humans:








It bans the use of sewage sludge that leaves concentrations over these limits.


The specific limits are in the directive’s annexes:

Annex IA - heavy metals in the soil,

Annex IB - heavy metals in sludge,

Annex IC - maximum annual quantities of heavy metals that may be added to the soil.

Normally, sludge has to be treated before being used in farming. However, in some EU countries farmers may be allowed to use untreated sludge if it is injected or worked into the soil.

In certain situations, sludge may not be used at all in farming:

on grassland or forage crops that are going to be grazed by animals and for a minimum 3 weeks before crops are due to be harvested,

on fruit and vegetable crops during the growing season. This rule doesn’t include fruit trees,

on soil used to grow fruit and vegetable crops that are usually in direct contact with the soil and eaten raw. This ban applies for 10 months before the harvest and during the harvest itself.

Responsibility for ensuring farmers’ use of sludge does not exceed the legal limits lies with national authorities, who have to sample and analyse sludge and the soil it is used on and keep a record of:

how much is produced and used in farming,

its composition and properties,

how it has been treated,

where it is used and who uses it.

The European Commission publishes a regular report on sludge use in EU farming, which brings together the information reported by individual countries on this subject.


Sewage sludge - EU rules.


* Sewage sludge - sludge from domestic or urban waste treatment plants, septic tanks and similar sewage treatment plants.

* Treated sludge - sludge that has undergone biological, chemical or heat treatment, long-term storage or any other appropriate process to make it significantly less likely to ferment (reducing its risk to health).



Entry into force

Deadline for transposition in the Member States

Official Journal

Directive 86/278/EEC



OJ L 181, 4.7.1986, pp. 6-12

Amending act(s)

Entry into force

Deadline for transposition in the Member States

Official Journal

Directive 91/692/EEC



OJ L 377, 31.12.1991, pp. 48-54

Regulation (EC) No 219/2009



OJ L 87, 31.3.2009, pp. 109-154

Successive amendments to Directive 86/278/EEC have been incorporated in the original text. This consolidated version is of documentary value only.

last update 14.09.2015