The strategy prohibits any use for fruit and salad crops, but allows ‘advanced treated sludge’ to be used on land producing vegetables and horticulture, and will phase out all use of untreated sludge by the end of 1999.

The environmental consultancy ADAS has played a large part in facilitating this agreement and has come up with a matrix and guidelines. This has met the approval of all interested parties and will ensure that by the year 2001 the use of untreated sewage sludge will have been phased out.

The water industry has been involved for some time in talks with the British Retail Consortium whose members have shown concern about the practice of using untreated sludge on land and how it is perceived by their customers.

At present, 1.1m dry tonnes of sewage sludge is produced each year with nearly 50 per cent for use on agricultural land, however, compliance with the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive is expected to take this figure up to 1.5m dry tonnes a year.

The recycling of sludge is a competitive business and the water industry has expressed concern at the ‘serious economic consequences’ which would arise if retailers refused to accept food from land which sludge had been applied to.

Peter Soulsby, speaking on behalf of Water UK, said it was important to react to this concern and be aware of the market needs and to keep on top of the situation. “We have to build confidence in taking sewage sludge and recycling it into agricultural land.”

The ADAS matrix is to be incorporated into the current code of practice by early next year but the implementation date will be from December 31 of this year.

Where the matrix allows for the continued use of sewage sludge, including advanced treatment, all applications will have to be carried out in accordance with the current regulations and the code of practice.

A steering group has also been established, chaired by ADAS, which includes representatives from both the food retail and water industries to research the use of digested sludge and also the definition of what constitutes advanced treatment. This will include the ability to audit the process, which is expected to be overseen by the Environment Agency.

David Pierrepont of ADAS commented: “Once the detail of the matrix has been finalised it is not the intention for communication between the water industry and the retailers to stop. The water industry sees this as on-going.”

The implementation of the matrix will be at a cost to the industry estimated at between £500m to £1billion. This will vary from one water company to another and will depend on capital costs and operational expenditure.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie