The use of organic municipal wastes as soil amendments is an increasing practice that can divert significant amounts of waste from landfill, and provides a potential source of nutrients and organic matter to ameliorate degraded soils. Due to the high heterogeneity of organic municipal waste streams, it is difficult to rapidly and cost-effectively establish their suitability as soil amendments using a single method. Thermal analysis has been proposed as an evolving technique to assess the stability and composition of the organic matter present in these wastes. In this study, three different organic municipal waste streams (i.e., a municipal waste compost (MC), a composted sewage sludge (CS) and a thermally dried sewage sludge (TS)) were characterized using conventional and thermal methods. The conventional methods used to test organic matter stability included laboratory incubation with measurement of respired C, and spectroscopic methods to characterize chemical composition. Carbon mineralization was measured during a 90-day incubation, and samples before and after incubation were analyzed by chemical (elemental analysis) and spectroscopic (infrared and nuclear magnetic resonance) methods. Results were compared with those obtained by thermogravimetry (TG) and differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) techniques. Total amounts of CO2 respired indicated that the organic matter in the TS was the least stable, while that in the CS was the most stable. This was confirmed by changes detected with the spectroscopic methods in the composition of the organic wastes due to C mineralization. Differences were especially pronounced for TS, which showed a remarkable loss of aliphatic and proteinaceous compounds during the incubation process. TG, and especially DSC analysis, clearly reflected these differences between the three organic wastes before and after the incubation. Furthermore, the calculated energy density, which represents the energy available per unit of organic matter, showed a strong correlation with cumulative respiration. Results obtained support the hypothesis of a potential link between the thermal and biological stability of the studied organic materials, and consequently the ability of thermal analysis to characterize the maturity of municipal organic wastes and composts.
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