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Sewage sludge treatment

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Sewage sludge treatment

Dried, anaerobically digested sludge.

Sewage sludge treatment describes the processes used to manage and dispose of sewage sludge produced during sewage treatment. Sludge is mostly water with lesser amounts of solid material removed from liquid sewage. Primary sludge includes settleable solids removed during primary treatment in primary clarifiers. Secondary sludge separated in secondary clarifiers includes treated sewage sludge from secondary treatment bioreactors.

Sludge treatment is focused on reducing sludge weight and volume to reduce disposal costs, and on reducing potential health risks of disposal options. Water removal is the primary means of weight and volume reduction, while pathogen destruction is frequently accomplished through heating during thermophilic digestion, composting, or incineration. The choice of a sludge treatment method depends on the volume of sludge generated, and comparison of treatment costs required for available disposal options. Air-drying and composting may be attractive to rural communities, while limited land availability may make aerobic digestion and mechanical dewatering preferable for cities, and economies of scale may encourage energy recovery alternatives in metropolitan areas.

Energy may be recovered from sludge through methane gas production during anaerobic digestion or through incineration of dried sludge, but energy yield is often insufficient to evaporate sludge water content or to power blowers, pumps, or centrifuges required for dewatering. Coarse primary solids and secondary sewage sludge may include toxic chemicals removed from liquid sewage by sorption onto solid particles in clarifier sludge. Reducing sludge volume may increase the concentration of some of these toxic chemicals in the sludge.[1]


  • Terminology 1
    • Biosolids 1.1
  • Treatment processes 2
    • Thickening 2.1
    • Dewatering 2.2
    • Sidestream treatment technologies 2.3
      • Phosphorus recovery 2.3.1
    • Digestion 2.4
      • Anaerobic digestion 2.4.1
      • Aerobic digestion 2.4.2
    • Composting 2.5
    • Incineration 2.6
    • Drying beds 2.7
    • Emerging Technologies 2.8
  • Disposal or use as fertilizer 3
    • Examples 3.1
      • South Australia 3.1.1
      • Edmonton, Canada 3.1.2
      • New York City, U.S. 3.1.3
      • Southern California, U.S. 3.1.4
  • Controversy 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6



"anaerobic digestion and composting.[2] The term "biosolids" was introduced by the Water Environment Federation in the U.S. in 1998.[2] However, some people argue that the term is a form of "propaganda" (or at least a euphemism) with the aim to hide the fact that sewage sludge may also contain substances that could be harmful to the environment when the treated sludge is applied to land, for example environmental persistent pharmaceutical pollutants.[3]

Treatment processes


A sewage sludge thickener.

Thickening is often the first step in a sludge treatment process. Sludge from primary or secondary clarifiers may be stirred (often after addition of clarifying agents) to form larger, more rapidly settling aggregates.[4] Primary sludge may be thickened to about 8 or 10 percent solids, while secondary sludge may be thickened to about 4 percent solids. Thickeners often resemble a clarifier with the addition of a stirring mechanism.[5] Thickened sludge with less than ten percent solids may receive additional sludge treatment while liquid thickener overflow is returned to the sewage treatment process.


Schematic of a belt filter press to dewater sewage sludge. Filtrate is extracted initially by gravity, then by squeezing the cloth through rollers.

Water content of sludge may be reduced by centrifugation, filtration, and/or evaporation to reduce transportation costs of disposal, or to improve suitability for composting. Centrifugation may be a preliminary step to reduce sludge volume for subsequent filtration or evaporation. Filtration may occur through underdrains in a sand drying bed or as a separate mechanical process in a belt filter press. Filtrate and centrate are typically returned to the sewage treatment process. After dewatering sludge may be handled as a solid containing 50 to 75 percent water. Dewatered sludges with higher moisture content are usually handled as liquids.[6]

Sidestream treatment technologies

Sludge treatment technologies that are used for thickening or dewatering of sludge have two products: the thickened or dewatered sludge, and a liquid fraction which is called sludge treatment liquids, sludge dewatering streams, liquors, centrate (if it stems from a centrifuge), filtrate (if it stems from a belt filter press) or similar. This liquid requires further treatment as it is high in nitrogen and phosphorus, particularly if the sludge has been anaerobically digested. The treatment can take place in the sewage treatment plant itself (by recycling the liquid to the start of the treatment process) or as a separate process.

Phosphorus recovery

One method for treating sludge dewatering streams is by using a process that is also used for phosphorus recovery. Another benefit for sewage treatment plant operators of treating sludge dewatering streams for phosphorus recovery is that it reduces the formation of obstructive struvite scale in pipes, pumps and valves. Such obstructions can be a maintenance headache particularly for biological nutrient removal plants where the phosphorus content in the sewage sludge is elevated. For example, the Canadian company Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies is marketing a process based on controlled chemical precipitation of phosphorus in a fluidized bed reactor that recovers struvite in the form of crystalline pellets from sludge dewatering streams. The resulting crystalline product is sold to the agriculture, turf and ornamental plants sectors as fertiliser under the registered trade name "Crystal Green".[7]


Many sludges are treated using a variety of digestion techniques, the purpose of which is to reduce the amount of anaerobic digestion, aerobic digestion, and composting.

Anaerobic digestion

Anaerobic digestion is a bacterial process that is carried out in the absence of oxygen. The process can either be thermophilic digestion, in which sludge is fermented in tanks at a temperature of 55 °C, or mesophilic, at a temperature of around 36 °C. Though allowing shorter retention time (and thus smaller tanks), thermophilic digestion is more expensive in terms of energy consumption for heating the sludge.

Mesophilic anaerobic digestion (MAD) is also a common method for treating sludge produced at sewage treatment plants. The sludge is fed into large tanks and held for a minimum of 12 days to allow the digestion process to perform the four stages necessary to digest the sludge. These are hydrolysis, acidogenesis, acetogenesis, and methanogenesis. In this process the complex proteins and sugars are broken down to form more simple compounds such as water, carbon dioxide, and methane.[8]

Anaerobic digestion generates biogas with a high proportion of methane that may be used to both heat the tank and run engines or microturbines for other on-site processes. Methane generation is a key advantage of the anaerobic process. Its key disadvantage is the long time required for the process (up to 30 days) and the high capital cost. Many larger sites utilize the biogas for combined heat and power, using the cooling water from the generators to maintain the temperature of the digestion plant at the required 35 ± 3 °C. Sufficient energy can be generated in this way to produce more electricity than the machines require.

Aerobic digestion

carbon dioxide. Once there is a lack of organic matter, bacteria die and are used as food by other bacteria. This stage of the process is known as endogenous respiration. Solids reduction occurs in this phase. Because the aerobic digestion occurs much faster than anaerobic digestion, the capital costs of aerobic digestion are lower. However, the operating costs are characteristically much greater for aerobic digestion because of energy used by the blowers, pumps and motors needed to add oxygen to the process. However, recent technological advances include non-electric aerated filter systems that use natural air currents for the aeration instead of electrically operated machinery.

Aerobic digestion can also be achieved by using diffuser systems or jet aerators to oxidize the sludge. Fine bubble diffusers are typically the more cost-efficient diffusion method, however, plugging is typically a problem due to sediment settling into the smaller air holes. Coarse bubble diffusers are more commonly used in activated sludge tanks or in the flocculation stages. A key component for selecting diffuser type is to ensure it will produce the required oxygen transfer rate.


Composting is an aerobic process of mixing sewage sludge with agricultural byproduct sources of carbon such as sawdust, straw or wood chips. In the presence of oxygen, bacteria digesting both the sewage sludge and the plant material generate heat to kill disease-causing microorganisms and parasites.[9]:20 Maintenance of aerobic conditions with 10 to 15 percent oxygen requires bulking agents allowing air to circulate through the fine sludge solids. Stiff materials like corn cobs, nut shells, shredded tree-pruning waste, or bark from lumber or paper mills better separate sludge for ventilation than softer leaves and lawn clippings.[10] Light, biologically inert bulking agents like shredded tires may be used to provide structure where small, soft plant materials are the major source of carbon.[11]

Uniform distribution of pathogen-killing temperatures may be aided by placing an insulating blanket of previously composted sludge over aerated composting piles. Initial moisture content of the composting mixture should be about 50 percent; but temperatures may be inadequate for pathogen reduction where wet sludge or precipitation raises compost moisture content above 60 percent. Composting mixtures may be piled on concrete pads with built-in air ducts to be covered by a layer of unmixed bulking agents. Odors may be minimized by using an aerating blower drawing vacuum through the composting pile via the underlying ducts and exhausting through a filtering pile of previously composted sludge to be replaced when moisture content reaches 70 percent. Liquid accumulating in the underdrain ducting may be returned to the sewage treatment plant; and composting pads may be roofed to provide better moisture content control.[10]

After a composting interval sufficient for pathogen reduction, composted piles may be screened to recover undigested bulking agents for re-use; and composted solids passing through the screen may be used as a soil amendment material with similar benefits to peat. The optimum initial carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of a composting mixture is between 26-30:1; but the composting ratio of agricultural byproducts may be determined by the amount required to dilute concentrations of toxic chemicals in the sludge to acceptable levels for the intended compost use.[10] Although toxicity is low in most agricultural byproducts, suburban grass clippings may have residual herbicide levels detrimental to some agricultural uses; and freshly composted wood byproducts may contain phytotoxins inhibiting germination of seedlings until detoxified by soil fungi.[12]


Sludge incineration process schematic (note the emphasis on air quality control).

Incineration of sludge is less common because of air emissions concerns and the supplemental fuel (typically natural gas or fuel oil) required to burn the low calorific value sludge and vaporize residual water. On a dry solids basis, the fuel value of sludge varies from about 9,500 British thermal units per pound (980 cal/g) of undigested sewage sludge to 2,500 British thermal units per pound (260 cal/g) of digested primary sludge.[13] Stepped multiple hearth incinerators with high residence time and fluidized bed incinerators are the most common systems used to combust wastewater sludge. Co-firing in municipal waste-to-energy plants is occasionally done, this option being less expensive assuming the facilities already exist for solid waste and there is no need for auxiliary fuel.[9]:20–21 Incineration tends to maximize heavy metal concentrations in the remaining solid ash requiring disposal; but the option of returning wet scrubber effluent to the sewage treatment process may reduce air emissions by increasing concentrations of dissolved salts in sewage treatment plant effluent.[14]

Drying beds

Sewage sludge after drying in a sludge drying bed.
This simple evaporative sludge drying bed near Damascus in Syria illustrates the initial consistency of primary sludge being discharged from the primary settling tank via the pipe in the foreground.

Simple sludge drying beds are used in many countries, particularly in developing countries, as they are a cheap and simple method to dry sewage sludge. Drainage water must be captured; drying beds are sometimes covered but usually left uncovered. Mechanical devices to turn over the sludge in the initial stages of the drying process are also available on the market.

Emerging Technologies

  • Phosphorus recovery from sewage sludge or from sludge dewatering streams is receiving increased attention particularly in Sweden, Germany and Canada, as phosphorus is a limited resource (a concept also known as "peak phosphorus") and is needed as fertilizer to feed a growing world population.[15][16] Phosphorus recovery methods from wastewater or sludge can be categorized by the origin of the used matter (wastewater, sludge liquor, digested or non-digested sludge, ash) or by the type of recovery processes (precipitation, wet-chemical extraction and precipitation, thermal treatment).[17] Research on phosphorus recovery methods from sewage sludge has been carried out in Sweden and Germany since around 2003, but the technologies currently under development are not yet cost effective, given the current price of phosphorus on the world market.[17][18]
  • The Omni Processor is a process that is currently under development that treats sewage sludge and can generate a surplus of electrical energy if the input materials have the right level of dryness.[19]

Disposal or use as fertilizer

When a liquid sludge is produced, further treatment may be required to make it suitable for final disposal. Sludges are typically thickened and/or dewatered to reduce the volumes transported off-site for disposal. Processes for reducing water content include lagooning in drying beds to produce a cake that can be applied to land or incinerated; pressing, where sludge is mechanically filtered, often through cloth screens to produce a firm cake; and centrifugation where the sludge is thickened by centrifugally separating the solid and liquid. Sludges can be disposed of by liquid injection to land or by disposal in a landfill.

There is no process which completely eliminates the need to dispose of treated sewage sludge.

Much sludge originating from commercial or industrial areas is contaminated with toxic materials that are released into the sewers from the industrial processes.[21] Elevated concentrations of such materials may make the sludge unsuitable for agricultural use and it may then have to be incinerated or disposed of to landfill.


South Australia

In South Australia, after centrifugation, the sludge is then completely dried by sunlight. The nutrient rich treated sewage sludge is then provided to farmers free-of-charge to use as a natural fertiliser. This method has reduced the amount of landfill generated by the process each year.

Edmonton, Canada

The Edmonton Composting Facility, in Edmonton, Canada, is the largest sewage sludge composting site in North America.[22]

New York City, U.S.

Sewage sludge can be superheated and converted it into pelletized granules that are high in nitrogen and other organic materials. In New York City, for example, several sewage treatment plants have dewatering facilities that use large centrifuges along with the addition of chemicals such as polymer to further remove liquid from the sludge. The product which is left is called "cake," and that is picked up by companies which turn it into fertilizer pellets. This product is then sold to local farmers and turf farms as a soil amendment or fertilizer, reducing the amount of space required to dispose of sludge in landfills.

Southern California, U.S.

In the very large metropolitan areas of southern California inland communities return sewage sludge to the sewer system of communities at lower elevations to be reprocessed at a few very large treatment plants on the Pacific coast. This reduces the required size of interceptor sewers and allows local recycling of treated wastewater while retaining the economy of a single sludge processing facility.


Some campaigners perceive sewage sludge treatment as a problem and a danger to the environment - largely because systems in most industrialised countries mix industrial wastes with household sewerage. This has led some to claim that the term "biosolids" was created by the sewage treatment industry in order to take the focus off the origins of the material to make reuse more acceptable to the public, and some studies have suggested that this is in fact a form of propaganda.[23]


  1. ^ Reed, Middlebrooks & Crites, pp.78,79&251
  2. ^ a b Wastewater engineering : treatment and reuse (4th ed.). Metcalf & Eddy, Inc., McGraw Hill, USA. 2003. p. 1449.  
  3. ^ "Sludge Facts". Citizens for Sludge-Free Land. Retrieved April 2015. 
  4. ^ Fair, Geyer & Okun, p.21-8
  5. ^ Steel & McGhee, pp.533&534
  6. ^ Steel & McGhee, pp.535-545
  7. ^ "Ostara Nutrient Management Solutions". Ostara, Vancouver, Canada. Retrieved 19 February 2015. 
  8. ^ Biomass – Using Anaerobic Digestion.
  9. ^ a b EPA. Washington, DC (2004). "Primer for Municipal Waste water Treatment Systems." Document no. EPA 832-R-04-001.
  10. ^ a b c Reed, Middlebrooks & Crites, pp.268-290
  11. ^ "Biosolids Technology Fact Sheet" (PDF). United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 14 January 2015. 
  12. ^ Aslam, DN; Vandergeynst, JS; Rumsey, TR. "Development of models for predicting carbon mineralization and associated phytotoxicity in compost-amended soil". National Institutes of Health. Retrieved 15 January 2015. 
  13. ^ Metcalf & Eddy, p.626
  14. ^ Hougen, Watson & Ragatz, pp.415-419
  15. ^ Sartorius, C. (2011). Technologievorausschau und Zukunftschancen durch die Entwicklung von Phosphorrecyclingtechnologien in Deutschland (in German) - Technology prediction and future opportunities through the development of phosphorus recycling technologies in Germany. Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Siedlungswasserwirtschaft an der RWTH Aachen
  16. ^ Pinnekamp, J. , Everding, W., Gethke, K., Montag, D., Weinfurtner, K., Sartorius, C., von Horn, J., Tettenborn, F., Gäth, S., Waida, C., Fehrenbach, H., Reinhardt, J. (2011). Phosphorrecycling – Ökologische und wirtschaftliche Bewertung verschiedener Verfahren und Entwicklung eines strategischen Verwertungskonzepts für Deutschland (in German) - Recycling of phosphorus - Ecological and economic evaluation of different processes and development of a strategical recycling concept for Germany. Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen, Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen, Germany
  17. ^ a b Sartorius, C., von Horn, J., Tettenborn, F. (2011). Phosphorus recovery from wastewater – state-of-the-art and future potential. Conference presentation at Nutrient Recovery and Management Conference organised by International Water Association (IWA) and Water Environment Federation (WEF) in Florida, USA
  18. ^ Hultman, B., Levlin, E., Plaza, E., Stark, K. (2003). Phosphorus Recovery from Sludge in Sweden - Possibilities to meet proposed goals in an efficient, sustainable and economical way.
  19. ^ """BBC news article "Bill Gates drinks water distilled from human faeces. Retrieved 11 January 2015. 
  20. ^ Sforza, Teri. "New plan replaces sewage sludge fiasco". Orange County Register. Retrieved 15 January 2015. 
  21. ^ Langenkamp, H., Part, P. (2001). "Organic Contaminants in Sewage Sludge for Agricultural Use." European Commission Joint Research Centre, Institute for Environment and Sustainability, Soil and Waste Unit. Brussels, Belgium.
  22. ^ "Edmonton Composting Facility". City of Edmonton. Retrieved 15 January 2015. 
  23. ^ Rampton, Sheldon (February 2003). "Sludge, Biosolids, and the Propaganda Model of Communication" (PDF). New Solutions 12 (4): 347–353.  

Further reading

  • Fair, Gordon Maskew; Geyer, John Charles; Okun, Daniel Alexander (1968). Water and Wastewater Engineering 2. New York: John Wiley & Sons. 
  • Hougen, Olaf A.; Watson, Kenneth M.; Ragatz, Roland A. (1965). Chemical Process Principles I (Second ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons. 
  • Metcalf; Eddy (1972). Wastewater Engineering. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 
  • Reed, Sherwood C.; Middlebrooks, E. Joe; Crites, Ronald W. (1988). Natural Systems for Waste Management and Treatment. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.  
  • Steel, E.W.; McGhee, Terence J. (1979). Water Supply and Sewerage (Fifth ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.  
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