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Compost 2000 Down Under Conference


Kevin Wilkinson, Emily Tee and Vanessa Hood
Agriculture Victoria, Knoxfield Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Victoria, Australia.

Summary Analysis of 52 different garden organics end-products showed that the Victorian limit for copper was exceeded on 46% of occasions, 63% of occasions for zinc and 50% of occasions for chromium. These data support the need for a revision of the heavy metal limits used in the Australian Standard for composts, soil conditioners and mulches (AS4454-1999). The extremely high variability in results for the nitrogen drawdown index (NDI) and wettability supports concern widely held about the poor reliability of these test methods. The carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio test was deleted in the current version of AS4454 and replaced by the NDI for those products which claim to contribute to plant nutrition. AS4454 needs continuing evaluation and refinement in order for it to grow in credibility and be adopted by the composting industry.

Introduction The acceptance of the Australian Standard for composts, soil conditioners and mulches (AS4454) as the benchmark for compost quality has been steadily growing since its introduction in 1997. As awareness about health and environmental safety grows in the community, compost producers are likely to come under increasing pressure to provide some form of quality assurance to their customers. Quality assurance can also provide a framework for producing a consistent end-product. At present, very little compost is used in agriculture or horticulture, but these markets have huge long term potential. One factor that has long been recognised as presenting a barrier to market acceptance has been uncertainty about the consistency of composts. To date, large numbers of garden organics end-products have been analysed according to AS4454. Some of these results were collated to provide insight into the suitability of AS4454 for use as a benchmark for compost quality.

Analyses of garden organics end-products Compost producers, Agriculture Victoria and NSW Agriculture provided analyses of 52 different garden organics end-products. Products were analysed according to either AS4454-1999 or an earlier version of the same Standard, AS4454-1997, by a number of different laboratories. Products were either composted or pasteurised according to the AS4454-1999 definition. pH and electrical conductivity pH values of the products were generally neutral to slightly alkaline (Table 1). Salt levels, as measured by electrical conductivity (EC), were generally low (under 2.5 dS/m) (Table 1). Within an EC range of 1-2 dS/m, slightly reduced application rates are required for salt sensitive plants (AS44541999). C:N ratio, nitrogen drawdown and wettability The carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio of most products was in the range of 35-53:1 (Table 1). This is quite high for composts and suggests that most garden organics feedstock is composted without first lowering the C:N ratio to optimal levels. Generally, the C:N ratio at the start of composting should be between 20 and 40:1, depending on the feedstock (Wilkinson et al. 1998). The C:N ratio is reduced during the composting process, until the majority of the available C has been utilised and a stable endproduct is produced. High C:N ratios at the start of composting result in extended periods of composting to the extent that piles will often remain hot for many months.

A relatively high C:N ratio in the end-product may not be a problem when it is used as a mulch. However, for products incorporated into the soil such as soil conditioners, or for growing media, a C:N ratio below about 20:1 can be critical. The main problem observed with high C:N ratio products is usually nitrogen drawdown. Nitrogen drawdown is the immobilisation of N by microorganisms involved in the decomposition of high C:N organic matter (Wilkinson et al. 1998). This means that plants have to compete for N with microorganisms, which can result in deficiency symptoms and stunting of plant growth. In the earlier version of the Standard (AS4454-1997), a C:N ratio of below 20:1 was required for products claiming to supply nitrogen to plants. The main disadvantage of this test was that some products with a high C:N ratio do not result in nitrogen drawdown. This is often the case when the dominant form of C in organic materials is resistant to decomposition (e.g. C as lignin or C contained in large pieces of wood). As a result of this problem, the C:N ratio was replaced by the nitrogen drawdown index (NDI) in the current version of the Standard (AS4454-1999) in an attempt to better reflect the potential of products to cause nitrogen drawdown. An NDI of >0 is required for products that claim to contribute to plant nutrition (AS4454-1999). The NDIs for most garden organics products were in the range 0.08-0.32 (Table 1). These test results suggest that, given that other conditions were met (e.g. total N of > 0.8%), these products would not cause nitrogen drawdown. However, it is not mathematically possible to obtain an NDI of less than zero, and because test results must be calculated to two decimal places, an NDI of >0 will be highly likely for almost any product tested. Given that at high C:N ratios sufficient C is usually available in garden organics to continue decomposition and that most products had final C:N ratios of greater than 35, it is highly likely that many of them would in fact cause nitrogen drawdown when incorporated in soil.

Table 1: Summary statistics for garden organics end-product analyses Characteristic Units


Moisture content % (w/w) 40 41 41 21 59 pH 49 7.3 7.3 5.6 8.3 Electrical dS/m 47 2.0 1.8 0.8 5.1 conductivity Toxicity index 26 79 20 83 13 100 Wettability minutes 18 16 41 4 0 180 Nitrogen 26 0.20 0.29 0.10 0.01 1.50 drawdown index Loss on ignition % (w/w) 38 55 14 51 36 89 C:N ratio 37 44 27 35 16 134 Ammonium mg/L 25 11 22 4 0 75 Nitrate mg/L 13 1.8 3.6 0.3 0.0 10.0 Total nutrients Nitrogen (N) % (w/w) 47 0.88 0.35 0.86 0.39 1.60 Phosphorus (P) mg/kg 41 1798 1063 1650 500 4780 Potassium (K) mg/kg 33 5326 2476 4650 1896 11000 Sulphur (S) mg/kg 23 1967 596 1850 840 2990 Calcium (Ca) mg/kg 25 15158 3175 15400 9000 20900 Magnesium (Mg) mg/kg 25 3610 1183 3610 1700 6170 Manganese (Mn) mg/kg 19 199 72 210 54 300 Iron (Fe) mg/kg 19 13881 6368 14400 2100 21800 Boron (B) mg/kg 19 25 7 24 15 45 Sodium (Na) mg/kg 29 1411 437 1300 709 2300 Heavy metals Arsenic (As) mg/kg 25 8 6 6 3 35 Cadmium (Cd) mg/kg 29 0.6 0.3 0.5 0.4 1.7 Chromium (Cr) mg/kg 26 60 41 51 8 160 Copper (Cu) mg/kg 41 63 41 54 10 165 Lead (Pb) mg/kg 41 92 58 81 21 272 Mercury (Hg) mg/kg 25 0.2 0.1 0.2 0.1 0.4 Nickel (Ni) mg/kg 24 23 13 18 5 62 Selenium (Se) mg/kg 21 0.9 0.6 0.6 0.5 2.4 Zinc (Zn) mg/kg 41 313 219 220 73 969 1 Loss on ignition and total nutrients determined on dry matter basis; Moisture content on 2 3 basis. n: number of samples tested (out of 52). CV: coefficient of variation

Standard Deviation 10 0.7 0.9




CV (%) 25 10 47 26 267 148 26 61 190 199 40 59 46 30 21 33 36 46 28 31 76 42 69 66 63 45 56 75 70 wet weight

The test results for NDI were highly variable with a coefficient of variation of 148% (ie the standard deviation was 148% higher than the mean). The wettability test was the most variable out of any test with a coefficient of variation of 267% (Table 1). Much of this variation, for both NDI and wettability, is likely to be due to a lack of reliability in the test methods rather than variation in the samples themselves. A similar observation was made when a single homogenous compost sample was subsampled and analysed for NDI and wettability by a number of different laboratories (J Maheswaran and K Coote, pers. comm.). The NDI test, as it applies in AS4454-1999, is not sufficiently robust. In our opinion, the C:N ratio is the better option because it is used world-wide in compost production and end-product quality testing. The wettability test is also of highly questionable reliability. The usefulness of both tests may improve with further development and evaluation.

Nutrient and organic matter content of garden organics Composts contain a complete range of plant nutrients, but are not usually considered to offer much fertiliser value. This is certainly the case with the garden organics products tested (Table 1). The content and availability of N determines the fertiliser value of compost in AS4454. In addition to NDI, 3 other tests are used for this purpose: total N, ammonium-N and nitrate-N. Ammonium-N and nitrate-N are the two main forms of soluble nitrogen used by plants. The ammonium-N and nitrate-N tests had coefficients of variation close to 200% (Table 1). This extremely high variability casts the reliability of these tests also into doubt. Nitrate and ammonium strip readers are sometimes used in the test method, which often give results of dubious reliability. The availability of nutrients may be of importance for marketing some products, but the tests used to determine it appear not to be sufficiently robust. Iron levels in the products tested were well above what would normally be expected from plant materials alone (Table 1). This suggests that large amounts of ferrous sulphate had been used to improve the visual appearance of these products (imparts a dark brown colour). The levels of Fe observed in these products far exceed plant requirements. Excess supply of Fe can limit the availability of P (Handreck and Black 1994). The main benefit of garden organics products is their organic matter content. This is determined with the loss on ignition (LOI) test by heating organic materials to 550C (AS4454-1999). While the LOI test gives a good indication of the total organic matter content of compost, it does not measure its degree of decomposition. Organic matter exists in several different forms, each having different effects on soil conditions and plant growth. In general, high quality composts contain a high proportion of humus, a form of organic matter in an advanced stage of decomposition. Products with a high total organic matter content may be unstable because the bulk of the organic matter is in a relatively undecomposed form. For these reasons, it is difficult to compare the quality of two composts based on LOI alone. Heavy metals Heavy metal limits were incorporated in AS4454 to protect public health and environmental safety. In Victoria, the heavy metal limits that apply are found in the EPA Environmental Guidelines for Composting (EPA Victoria 1996). A comparison of some Australian and international heavy metal limits is shown in Table 2. The garden organics products tested frequently exceeded Victorian limits for copper (Cu), chromium (Cr) and zinc (Zn) (Tables 1 and 2). Forty six percent of the samples tested exceeded the Victorian limit for Cu (Fig. 1), 63% exceeded the limit for Zn (Fig. 2) and 50% exceeded the limit for Cr (Fig. 3). Table 2: Comparison of some Australian and international heavy metal limits for compost Victoria NSW Germany Netherlands United States dry matter.. Arsenic (As) 20 20 15 41 Cadmium (Cd) 3 3 1.5 1 39 Chromium (Cr) 50 100 100 50 Copper (Cu) 60 100 100 60 1500 Lead (Pb) 150 150 150 100 300 Mercury (Hg) 1 1 1 0.3 Nickel (Ni) 60 60 50 20 420 Selenium (Se) 5 5 100 Zinc (Zn) 200 200 400 200 2800 1 2 3 EPA Victoria (1996); Grade A (EPA NSW 1997); RAL-GZ 25 quality criteria (DHV Group 1997); 4 5 Limits for compost set by the BRL-K256/02 guideline (DHV Group 1997); EPA 503 Exceptional Quality biosolids limits (Logan et al. 1999). Heavy metal
1 2 3 4 5

30 under limit 25 % of samples 20 15 10 5 0 under 20 21-40 41-60 61-80 81-100 101-120 120+ Copper levels in sam ples (m g/kg) over limit (46% of samples)

Figure 1: Copper levels found in garden organics composts (41 samples tested).

35 30 25 % of samples 20 15 10 5 0

under limit

over limit (63% of samples)

under 100 101-200






Zinc levels in sam ples (m g/kg)

Figure 2: Zinc levels found in garden organics composts (41 samples tested).

40 35 % of samples 30 25 20 15 10 5 0 under 25 26-50 51-75 76-100 101-125 126-150 150+ Chrom ium levels in sam ples (m g/kg) under limit over limit (46% of samples)

Figure 3: Chromium levels found in garden organics composts (26 samples tested).

Heavy metals such as Cu, Zn and nickel (Ni) are also termed trace elements or micronutrients because plants require them in small amounts. At high concentrations, these metals can be phytotoxic (ie toxic to plants). Others such as cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg) and lead (Pb) are not essential to plants and are toxic to humans and animals. As a result, the term heavy metal has become synonymous with an element that is harmful to the environment, plants, animals and humans (Epstein 1997). According to Chaney and Ryan (1993), the principal limitation for compost-applied Pb is direct ingestion of composts by children, livestock or wildlife. Similarly, plant uptake and transfer to the food chain is the principal limitation on Cd application, while transfer to the food chain for ruminant livestock is the principal limitation for selenium (Se) (Chaney and Ryan 1993). The Victorian limits for Cu and Zn are very low by world standards (Table 2). The frequency with which garden organics products exceed these limits indicates that these levels should be reviewed. Studies have shown that only when biosolids with very high levels of Cu (>2000 mg/kg) were added to strongly acidic soils did Cu phytotoxicity occur in sensitive crops (Webber et al. 1981, Marks et al. 1980 as cited in Epstein 1997). Similar findings have been observed for Ni and Zn (Epstein 1997). Copper and Zn toxicity are rarely seen in animals and humans. The reason for Cr frequently exceeding the Victorian limits is unclear. Contamination of garden organics with treated pine may occasionally be a factor. Levels of Cr observed in this study were generally higher than that typically found in European green composts (Genevini et al. 1997). Australia-wide heavy metal limits for composts are clearly needed. At the moment, current limits are set at conservative levels to protect public health and environmental safety, without sufficient knowledge of background levels that would normally be expected in composts derived from sourceseparated organic materials. It may be appropriate to consider setting limits for several grades of compost (e.g. Grade A, B etc) to be used for different purposes, as is the case in the NSW biosolids guidelines (EPA NSW 1997). Further studies are needed on the incidence of heavy metals in Australian composts from different sources. These studies should identify normal background levels in source-separated feedstock and final products and compare these levels with current Australian and international limits. Potential sources of contamination for the most problematic heavy metals also need to be identified.

Conclusions The importance of AS4454 to the sustainable growth of the composting industry should not be underestimated. However, it is important to evaluate and continually improve AS4454 to ensure that it gains the creditability it deserves. These results demonstrate that AS4454-1999 requires further refinement. The NDI, wettability and heavy metal limits are the main problem areas at present. It is important to recognise the difficulty of setting standards for the potentially huge range of products falling under the banner of composts, soil conditioners and mulches. The Standard has to be robust, but not inflexible. The tests in it are designed only as baseline indicators of quality and cannot predict with certainty how products will perform when consumers use them. The Standard has limited application unless compost producers choose to become certified to it. Certification requires compost producers to develop a quality control system that is audited by an independent third party. This aspect of the standard is its particular strength, because quality control is the basis of best practice in any sphere of business.

Acknowledgements The contribution of analyses by compost producers and NSW Agriculture is gratefully acknowledged. Funding from EcoRecycle Victoria is also gratefully acknowledged.

References AS 4454-1997. The Australian Standard for Composts, Soil Conditioners and Mulches (first edition). Standards Australia, Homebush, NSW. September 1997. AS 4454-1999. The Australian Standard for Composts, Soil Conditioners and Mulches (second edition). Standards Australia, Homebush, NSW. June 1999. Chaney R.L. and Ryan J.A. (1993). Heavy metals and toxic organic pollutants in MSW-composts: Research results of phytoavailability, bioavailability, fate, etc, pp. 451-506. In H.A.J. Hoitink and H.M. Keener (eds.) Science and Engineering of Composting: Design, Environmental, Microbiological and Utilization Aspects. Renaissance Publications, Worthington Ohio. DHV Group (1997). Composting in the European Union. Final Report for European Commission DG XI, Environment, Nuclear Safety and Civil Protection. DHV Environment and Infrastructure, Amersfoort Netherlands. EPA NSW (1997). Environmental Guidelines: Use and Disposal of Biosolids Products. Environment Protection Authority, Chatswood NSW. October 1997. EPA Victoria (1996). Environmental Guidelines for Composting and Other Organic Recycling Facilities. Publication 508. Environment Protection Authority, Melbourne Victoria. June 1996. Epstein E. (1997). The Science of Composting. Technomic Publishing Company Inc. Lancaster Penn. pp487. Genevini P.L., Adani F., Borio D. and Tambone F. (1997). Heavy metal content in selected European composts. Compost Science and Utilization. 5(4): 31-39. Handreck K.A. and Black N.D. (1994). Growing Media for Ornamental Plants and Turf. University of New South Wales Press, Randwick NSW. pp448. Logan T.J., Henry C.L., Schnoor J.L., Overcash M. and McAvoy D.C. (1999). An assessment of health and environmental risks of trace elements and toxic organics in land-applied municipal solid waste compost. Compost Science and Utilization. 7(3): 38-53. Maheswaran J. and Coote, K. (2000). Personal Communication. Agriculture Victoria, State Chemistry Laboratory, Werribee Victoria. Marks M.J., Williams J.H. and Chumbley C.G. (1980). Field experiments testing the effects of metalcontaminated sewage sludges on some vegetable crops, pp. 235-251. In Inorganic Pollution and Agriculture. Min. Agr. Fish. Food Reference Book 326. HMSO, London. Webber M.D., Soon Y.K., Bates T.E. and Haq A.U. (1981). Copper toxicity to crops resulting from land application of sewage sludge, pp. 117-135. In P. LHermite and J. Dehandschutter (eds.). Copper in Animal Wastes and Sewage Sludge. Reidel Publications, Dordrecht. Wilkinson K., Tymms S., Hood V. and Tee E. (1998). Guide to Best Practice, Composting Green Organics. EcoRecycle Victoria, December 1998.
[Source: Compost 2000 Down Under Conference - Presenters' Notes]

Compost 2000 Down Under Conference