Plant Nutrition and Heavy Metal Aspects of Compost Use

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  • 1 USDA/ARS, Environmental Chemistry Lab., Beltsville, MD 20705

Depending on the materials used to produce a compost, it will contain lower or higher levels of nutrients and metals. If composts have been appropriately matured, nutrients are in plant-available forms for crop production, and the compost pH will be near neutral. After 25 years of research and development of regulations and advice for biosolids and compost utilization, pretreatment of industrial wastes allows biosolids composts, and composts prepared from biosolids mixed with municipal solid wastes or yard debris to contain levels of microelements needed for plant nutrition but not high levels that could cause phytotoxicity. Composts can supply N, P, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, Zn, Cu, Mn, B, Mo, and Se required by plants or animals. When used in potting media, supplemental N fertilization is usually required, depending on crop requirements. Use of compost can replace other forms of microelements used as fertilizers in media or fields. Detailed evaluation of potential food chain transfer of Cd, Pb, and other elements in composts clearly shows that consumption of 60% of garden foods produced on pH 5.5 soils with 1000 t compost/ha would not comprise risk over a lifetime of consumption, nor would ingesting the composts at 200 mg/day for 5 years. Potentially toxic organic compounds are either destroyed during composting, or bound very strongly by the compost so that plant uptake is trivial. Compost use can be a safe and wise choice for both home and commercial use to replace peat or uncomposted manures, etc. Many states have developed regulatory controls to assure that pathogenic organisms are killed during composting, and that product quality standards are attained that allow marketing for general use in the community.

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