Use of sewage sludge in agriculture

The European Union regulates use of sewage sludge in agriculture to prevent harmful effects on soil, vegetation, animals and humans. In particular it sets maximum values of concentrations of heavy metals and bans the spreading of sewage sludge when the concentration of certain substances in the soil exceeds these values.

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 [See amending acts].

Sewage sludge has valuable agronomic properties in agriculture. In using sewage sludge account must be taken of the nutrient needs of the plants without, however, impairing neither the quality of the soil nor that of surface and ground water. Some heavy metals present in sewage sludge may be toxic to plants and humans.

Terms of Use

Sewage sludge may be used in agriculture provided that the Member State concerned regulates its use.

The Directive lays down limit values for concentrations of heavy metals in the soil (Annex IA), in sludge (Annex IB) and for the maximum annual quantities of heavy metals which may be introduced into the soil (Annex IC).

The use of sewage sludge is prohibited if the concentration of one or more heavy metals in the soil exceeds the limit values laid down in accordance with Annex IA. The Member States must therefore take the necessary steps to ensure that those limit values are not exceeded as a result of using sludge.

Sludge must be treated before being used in agriculture but the Member States may authorise the use of untreated sludge if it is injected or worked into the soil.


The use of sludge is prohibited:

  • on grassland or forage crops if the grassland is to be grazed or the forage crops to be harvested before a certain period has elapsed (this period, fixed by the Member States, may not be less than three weeks);
  • on fruit and vegetable crops during the growing season, with the exception of fruit trees;
  • on ground intended for the cultivation of fruit and vegetable crops which are normally in direct contact with the soil and normally eaten raw, for a period of ten months preceding the harvest and during the harvest itself.


Sludge and soil on which it is used must be sampled and analysed.

Member States must keep records registering:

  • the quantities of sludge produced and the quantities supplied for use in agriculture;
  • the composition and properties of the sludge;
  • the type of treatment carried out;
  • the names and addresses of the recipients of the sludge and the places where the sludge is to be used.

Where conditions so demand, Member States may take more stringent measures than those provided for in this Directive.

Five years after notification of this Directive, and every four years thereafter, Member States must produce a consolidated report on the use of sludge in agriculture, specifying the quantities used, the criteria followed and any difficulties encountered. They must forward the report to the Commission, which will publish the information contained in it.

In the light of that report the Commission will, if necessary, submit appropriate proposals for increased protection of the soil and the environment.


Act Entry into force – Date of expiry Deadline for transposition in the Member States Official Journal
Directive 86/278/EEC 18.6.1986 18.6.1989 OJ L 181 of 4.7.1986


Amending act(s) Entry into force Deadline for transposition in the Member States Official Journal
Directive 91/692/EEC 23.12.1991 1.1.1993 OJ L 377 of 31.12.1991
Regulation (EC) No 807/2003 5.6.2003 OJ L 122 of 16.5.2003
Regulation (EC) No 219/2009 20.4.2009   OJ L 87 of 31.3.2009



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