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Switzerland is to end the disposal of sewage sludge through agricultural spreading by 2005. The move will make it the first and only country in Europe to stop recycling sludge onto farms, with pressure still on across the EU for greater land spreading.
Bern says the step is being proposed due to a long-term decline in farmers' demand for sludge coupled with growing concerns over the pollutant content of wastewater residues, including recent detection of pharmaceutical compounds and synthetic hormones. The rising demand for organic and quality assured food products, where sludge is banned in production, is also a factor.
Though Switzerland's environment, agricultural, public health and veterinary authorities have approved the decision, concrete policy moves will not be taken until after consultation with farmers, wastewater treatment stations and industrial incinerators.
Switzerland spreads 40 percent of its sludge - 80,000 tonnes annually - onto farmland. All this should now be disposed of through incineration that already accounts for the rest.
The government acknowledges that this will stretch the country's already overburdened incinerators even further and is looking for industrial outlets for the waste. The cement industry has already pledged to take almost half.
Switerland's move presents a policy challenge to the EU, whose 1991 urban wastewater treatment directive is increasing volumes of sewage sludge and where increased recycling onto farmland is encouraged to combat nutrient loss.
A 1986 directive setting limits on pollutants in sludge is in the process of being revised.