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Phytoremediation as a management option for contaminated sediments in tidal marshes, flood control areas and dredged sediment landfill sites


Background, aim and scope

Polluted sediments in rivers may be transported by the river to the sea, spread over river banks and tidal marshes or managed, i.e. actively dredged and disposed of on land. Once sedimented on tidal marshes, alluvial areas or control flood areas, the polluted sediments enter semi-terrestrial ecosystems or agro-ecosystems and may pose a risk. Disposal of polluted dredged sediments on land may also lead to certain risks. Up to a few years ago, contaminated dredged sediments were placed in confined disposal facilities. The European policy encourages sediment valorisation and this will be a technological challenge for the near future. Currently, contaminated dredged sediments are often not valorisable due to their high content of contaminants and their consequent hazardous properties. In addition, it is generally admitted that treatment and re-use of heavily contaminated dredged sediments is not a cost-effective alternative to confined disposal. For contaminated sediments and associated disposal facilities used in the past, a realistic, low cost, safe, ecologically sound and sustainable management option is required. In this context, phytoremediation is proposed in the literature as a management option. The aim of this paper is to review the current knowledge on management, (phyto)remediation and associated risks in the particular case of sediments contaminated with organic and inorganic pollutants.

Main features

This paper deals with the following features: (1) management and remediation of contaminated sediments and associated risk assessment; (2) management options for ecosystems on polluted sediments, based on phytoremediation of contaminated sediments with focus on phytoextraction, phytostabilisation and phytoremediation of organic pollutants and (3) microbial and mycorrhizal processes occurring in contaminated sediments during phytoremediation.


In this review, an overview is given of phytoremediation as a management option for semi-terrestrial and terrestrial ecosystems affected by polluted sediments, and the processes affecting pollutant bioavailability in the sediments. Studies that combine contaminated sediment and phytoremediation are relatively recent and are increasing in number since few years. Several papers suggest including phytoremediation in a management scheme for contaminated dredged sediments and state that phytoremediation can contribute to the revaluation of land-disposed contaminated sediments. The status of sediments, i.e. reduced or oxidised, highly influences contaminant mobility, its (eco)toxicity and the success of phytoremediation. Studies are performed either on near-fresh sediment or on sediment-derived soil. Field studies show temporal negative effects on plant growth due to oxidation and subsequent ageing of contaminated sediments disposed on land. The review shows that a large variety of plants and trees are able to colonise or develop on contaminated dredged sediment in particular conditions or events (e.g. high level of organic matter, clay and moisture content, flooding, seasonal hydrological variations). Depending on the studies, trees, high-biomass crop species and graminaceous species could be used to degrade organic pollutants, to extract or to stabilise inorganic pollutants. Water content of sediment is a limiting factor for mycorrhizal development. In sediment, specific bacteria may enhance the mobilisation of inorganic contaminants whereas others may participate in their immobilisation. Bacteria are also able to degrade organic pollutants. Their actions may be increased in the presence of plants.


Choice of plants is particularly crucial for phytoremediation success on contaminated sediments. Extremely few studies are long-term field-based studies. Short-term effects and resilience of ecosystems is observed in long-term studies, i.e. due to degradation and stabilisation of pollutants. Terrestrial ecosystems affected by polluted sediments range from riverine tidal marshes with several interacting processes and vegetation development mainly determined by hydrology, over alluvial soils affected by overbank sedimentation (including flood control areas), to dredged sediment disposal facilities where hydrology and vegetation might be affected or managed by human intervention. This gradient is also a gradient of systems with highly variable soil and hydrological conditions in a temporal scale (tidal marshes) versus systems with a distinct soil development over time (dredged sediment landfill sites).


In some circumstances (e.g. to avoid flooding or to ensure navigation) dredging operations are necessary. Management and remediation of contaminated sediments are necessary to reduce the ecological risks and risks associated with food chain contamination and leaching. Besides disposal, classical remediation technologies for contaminated sediment also extract or destroy contaminants. These techniques imply the sediment structure deterioration and prohibitive costs. On the contrary, phytoremediation could be a low-cost option, particularly suited to in situ remediation of large sites and environmentally friendly. However, phytoremediation is rarely included in the management scheme of contaminated sediment and accepted as a viable option.


Phytoremediation is still an emerging technology that has to prove its sustainability at field scale. Research needs to focus on optimisations to enhance applicability and to address the economic feasibility of phytoremediation.

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This review was written by members of Working Group 4 (integration and application of phytotechnologies) of COST Action 859 (phytotechnologies to promote sustainable land use and improve food safety). COST is financed by the European Commission, with ESF as implementing agent.

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Correspondence to Valérie Bert.

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Responsible editors: Peter Schröder and Jean-Paul Schwitzguébel

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Bert, V., Seuntjens, P., Dejonghe, W. et al. Phytoremediation as a management option for contaminated sediments in tidal marshes, flood control areas and dredged sediment landfill sites. Environ Sci Pollut Res 16, 745–764 (2009).

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  • Bioaccumulation
  • Bioavailability
  • Biomass recovery
  • Contaminated sediment
  • Ecosystem
  • Flooding
  • Management option
  • Microorganisms
  • Phytostabilisation
  • Phytoextraction
  • Rhizodegradation
  • Risk assessment
  • Seasonal hydrological variations