Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 26, Issue 1, pp 759–774 | Cite as

Assessment of soil buffer capacity on nutrients and pharmaceuticals in nature-based solution applications

  • Alessio Barbagli
  • Benjamin Niklas Jensen
  • Muhammad Raza
  • Christoph Schüth
  • Rudy RossettoEmail author
Research Article


The ability of a soil to sustain infiltration rates and to attenuate pollutants is critical for the design and operation of Managed Aquifer Recharge/Soil Aquifer Treatment and phyto-treatment schemes, also referred to as “Blue Infrastructures”. We investigated the buffering capacity of a sediment sample and a peat soil sample for nutrients and selected pharmaceutical compounds and its evolution under continuous infiltration of secondary treated wastewater (TWW) in column experiments. Samples were obtained from two blue infrastructures, the Sant’Alessio Induced River Bank Filtration plant and the San Niccolò large-scale phyto-treatment plant in Italy, and were mainly different in their organic carbon contents (0.9 and 48%, respectively). In the column experiments, a constant infiltration rate of about 0.5 L/d was maintained for 6 months. After 4 months of operation, diclofenac and carbamazepine were spiked into the TWW to evaluate their fate. Water quality was monitored by periodic water sampling from the column inflow, at sampling ports along the column length, and at the outflow. Hydraulic conductivity (K) was also monitored. The hydraulic conductivity of the Sant’Alessio sediment decreased by a factor of 10 during the first 10 days of infiltration and then stabilized, while for the San Niccolò K (initially lower) remained constant for 50 days until it decreased following a change of the redox condition in the column. The different redox conditions, due to the two different soils tested, influenced also the concentration and mobility of PO43−, Fe, Mn, and NPOC, and the speciation of the redox sensitive elements (nitrogen and sulfur). NOPC and phosphate were enriched during the filtration through San Niccolò peat soil (from 2 to 4 times, respectively), while they were buffered by the Sant’Alessio sediment (from 0.2 to 0.4 times, respectively). Diclofenac removal (69% and below 20% for San Niccolò and Sant’Alessio, respectively) was related to sorption and degradation processes and it was lower than the removal of carbamazepine in both soils (76 and 35%). The buffer capacity differences between the two soils were higher for diclofenac (62%) than carbamazepine (35%). Nevertheless, since no apparent degradation of carbamazepine was detected in both soils, its persistence in the soil may have a larger impact in case of desorption, posing contamination risk to groundwater. The results highlight the importance of the soils or sediments to be used as medium in such nature-based solutions for their operations. They also offer an approach to, e.g., tailor man-made soil layers in infiltration basins. We strongly suggest that soil characteristics and test duration are carefully considered in designing these infrastructures, when nature-based processes are the choice for dealing with reuse of treated wastewater management issues.


Soil column test Nature-based solutions Managed Aquifer Recharge Reuse of treated wastewater Pharmaceuticals Nutrients Diclofenac Carbamazepine 



Atomic absorption spectrometer




Cation exchange capacity




Dissolved organic matter


Electrical conductance


Head observation tube


Ion chromatography


Induced RiverBank Filtration


Managed aquifer recharge


Non-purgeable organic carbon


Organic carbon


Principal component analysis


Poly(methyl methacrylate)






San Niccolò


Sampling port


Solid phase extraction


Secondary wastewater treatment plants


Total inorganic carbon


Total organic carbon


Treated wastewater


Wastewater treatment plant



A Barbagli perfomed the research actvities during his three-year PhD in Agrobiosciences at the Institute of Life Sciences, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna. BN Jensen participated to the research while doing its MSc at the Institute of Applied Geosciences, Technische Universität Darmstadt. We wish to thank to anonimous reviewers for their comments and suggestions, which helped to improve the quality of the paper.

Funding information

The activities described in this paper are co-financed within the framework of the EU FP7-ENV-2013-WATER-INNO-DEMO MARSOL (Grant Agreement n. 619120) and the Italian-Israeli bilateral project PHARM-SWAP MED (co-funded by the Italian Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale).


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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CGT Center for GeoTechnologiesUniversity of SienaSan Giovanni ValdarnoItaly
  2. 2.Dr. Spang Ingenieurgesellschaft für Bauwesen, Geologie und Umwelttechnik mbHWittenGermany
  3. 3.Institute of Applied Geosciences, Technische Universität DarmstadtDarmstadtGermany
  4. 4.IWW Water CentreMülheim an der RuhrGermany
  5. 5.Institute of Life Sciences, Scuola Superiore Sant’AnnaPisaItaly

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