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Using sewage sludge in farming



Directive 86/278/EEC 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 ensuring that the nutrient needs of the plants are considered and that the quality of the soil and of the surface and ground water is not impaired.
  • To this end, it sets limit values on the concentrations allowed in soil of 7 heavy metals that may be toxic to plants and humans:
    • cadmium
    • copper
    • nickel
    • lead
    • zinc
    • mercury
    • chromium.
  • It bans the use of sewage sludge that results in concentrations of these heavy metals in soil exceeding these limit values.
  • In 2018, the directive was amended by Decision (EU) 2018/853 as regards procedural rules in the field of environmental reporting.
  • In 2019, the directive was amended by Regulation (EU) 2019/1010 which aligns and streamlines the reporting requirements in environmental legislation.


  • The specific limit values are listed 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 that is going to be grazed by animals or on forage crops to be harvested, unless a minimum of 3 weeks has elapsed,
    • on fruit and vegetable crops during the growing season. This rule does not 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 up-to-date records of:
    • how much sludge is produced and used in farming,
    • the composition and properties of sludge,
    • how the sludge has been treated,
    • where sludge is used and who uses it.
  • Following the adoption of Regulation (EU) 2019/1010, from 1 January 2022, EU countries must additionally keep a record of any other information regarding the directive’s transposition and implementation that they provide to the European Commission. They must also present the information registered in those records in such a way that the digital data refer to a specific location or geographical area
  • EU countries are required to send information to the Commission every 3 years on the implementation of this Directive, in the form of a sectoral report which shall also cover other pertinent directives, on the basis of the questionnaire outlined in Commission Decision 94/741/EC. Decision (EU) 2018/853 requires that these sectoral reports are drawn up on the basis of a questionnaire or outline adopted by the Commission in the form of an implementing act. The report must be sent to the Commission within 9 months of the end of the 3-year period covered by it.
  • Regulation (EU) 2019/1010, whose changes to this directive will apply from 1 January 2022, simplifies the reporting process. It also seeks to ensure that EU countries are more transparent with regard to the information they provide and that the public can access the information as rapidly as possible. The records referred to above must be made available and easily accessible to the public for each calendar year, within 8 months of the end of the relevant calendar year, and must also be submitted to the Commission.
  • The Commission publishes a regular report on sludge use in EU farming, which brings together the information reported by individual countries on this subject.


It has applied since 18 June 1986 and it had to become law in the EU countries by 18 June 1989.


For more information, see:


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).


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 (OJ L 181, 4.7.1986, pp. 6-12)

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


Regulation (EU) 2019/1010 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 on the alignment of reporting obligations in the field of legislation related to the environment, and amending Regulations (EC) No 166/2006 and (EU) No 995/2010 of the European Parliament and of the Council, Directives 2002/49/EC, 2004/35/EC, 2007/2/EC, 2009/147/EC and 2010/63/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council, Council Regulations (EC) No 338/97 and (EC) No 2173/2005, and Council Directive 86/278/EEC (OJ L 170, 25.6.2019, pp. 115-127)

last update 19.06.2020