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International Journal of Phytoremediation

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Constructed Wetlands for Tannery Wastewater

Treatment in Portugal: Ten Years of Experience

Cristina S.C. Calheiros , António O.S.S. Rangel & Paula M.L. Castro

To cite this article: Cristina S.C. Calheiros , António O.S.S. Rangel & Paula M.L. Castro (2014)
Constructed Wetlands for Tannery Wastewater Treatment in Portugal: Ten Years of Experience,
International Journal of Phytoremediation, 16:9, 859-870, DOI: 10.1080/15226514.2013.798622

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International Journal of Phytoremediation, 16:859–870, 2014
Copyright C Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

ISSN: 1522-6514 print / 1549-7879 online

DOI: 10.1080/15226514.2013.798622



Cristina S.C. Calheiros, António O.S.S. Rangel,

and Paula M.L. Castro
CBQF – Centro de Biotecnologia e Quı́mica Fina – Laboratório Associado,
Escola Superior de Biotecnologia, Universidade Católica Portuguesa/Porto,
Porto, Portugal

Wastewaters from tannery industry are complex in composition and providing adequate treat-
ment can be difficult. Constructed wetlands (CW) are regarded as an alternative treatment
to the conventional biological systems, as a developing cost-effective and environmentally
friendly phytoremediation technology. The present review compiles and integrates informa-
tion on CWs technology for the needs of the tannery sector. The following issues arise as
crucial for the implementation of such systems, namely i) an accurate wastewater character-
ization and an effective pretreatment before reaching the CW, ii) choosing the plants species
better adapted to the imposed conditions, iii) substrate selection and iv) range of organic
loadings applied. The examples practiced in Portugal give indication that horizontal subsur-
face flow systems, with expanded clay media, are a suitable option to be considered when
dealing with high organic loading tannery wastewater (up to c.a. 3800 kgCODha−1d−1), be-
ing resilient to a wide range of hydraulic variations. Plants such as Phragmites and Typha
have shown to be adequate for tannery wastewater depuration, with Arundo donax proving
resilient to high salinity wastewaters. The flexibility of implementation allows the CW to be
adapted to different sites with different configurations, being suitable as main secondary or
tertiary treatment stage.

KEY WORDS: Constructed wetland, tannery wastewater, phytoremediation, leather industry, wastewater treat-
ment, Portugal

The leather or tannery industry represents for many countries an important economic
player. Based on 2008 figures, apart from EU, the major leather production centers in the
world are found in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, China, India, and Pakistan
(EC 2012). In the 20th century most of the tanneries changed the production through the
replacement of the traditional vegetable tanning into the chromium tanning technology.
The Portuguese leather industry has 60 active companies; typically small and medium

Address correspondence to P. M. L. Castro, CBQF – Centro de Biotecnologia e Quı́mica Fina – Labo-

ratório Associado, Escola Superior de Biotecnologia, Universidade Católica Portuguesa/Porto, Rua Dr. António
Bernardino de Almeida, 4200-072 Porto, Portugal. E-mail:


enterprises, mainly located in Alcanena—centre of Portugal—with also other industrial sites

in Oporto, Guimarães, Seia, and the Alentejo (APIC 2010). The wastewaters generated in
the course of the production process are highly complex and considered one of the hazardous
pollutants of the industry, and need proper treatment by physical/chemical and/or biological
means before discharge (Durai and Rajasimman 2011; EC 2012). Shakila (2011) carried
out a study on the impact of tannery effluent on water and soil profile, plant growth and
human health, showing that the tannery effluent above the acceptable limits was an hazard to
environmental and public health. Tannery effluents were shown to affect the survival and
caused histopathological changes in fish (Mohanta et al. 2010).
In Portugal, tanneries have their own wastewater treatment plants or are connected
to municipal plants; in Alcanena district a collective wastewater treatment plant for this
specific purpose is in place (APIC 2010). A frequent scenario is that wastewater treatment
plants are either working over or under the capacity due to poor design or to alterations in
production. Constructed wetlands (CWs) are systems considered to treat wastewaters by
biological means to a secondary or tertiary level. They intent to mimic the biogeochemical
conditions occurring in natural wetlands but in a man-made facility constructed for that
purpose. Also, they have been considered to be a phytoremediation technology to upgrade
wastewater treatment (Schröder et al. 2007). There are treatment facilities operating since
the late 1990s, however very little data concerning Portuguese CWs performance has been
reported (Duarte et al. 2010). Concerning tannery wastewater treatment, Calheiros et al.
(2007, 2008a, 2008b, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c) presented the first detailed documented study
of CWs implementation to the tannery industry in Portugal. These systems have been
studied in Portugal since 2001, to different extents and aspects, such as type of vegetation
(Calheiros et al. 2007), type of substrate (Calheiros et al. 2008a), treatment level (Calheiros
et al. 2012a, 2012b), cells alignment (Calheiros et al. 2009c), microbial diversity (Calheiros
et al. 2009a, 2009b, 2010) and toxicological issues (Calheiros et al. 2008b, 2012c).
The review presented here intents to gather the knowledge acquired by the studies
undertaken and give directions in order to support the CW technology for tannery wastewa-
ter treatment. This survey is centered in the Portuguese scenario, but it has an international
repercussion since the problems and solutions are borderless.


Tannery Wastewater Characterization
High inorganic and organic loadings, characterized by Biochemical Oxygen Demand
(BOD), Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD), solids, and high nitrogen contents are expected
in tannery wastewater (Durai and Rajasimman 2011; EC 2012). Typical characteristics
found in tannery wastewater, after primary or secondary treatment, retrieved from the case
studies analyzed, are shown in Table 1.
According to Burton and Stensel (2003), typical composition of high strength un-
treated domestic wastewater, concerning COD (800 mg/L) and BOD (350 mg/L) represent
much lower values than that for tannery, unless the water has passed through secondary
treatment previously, as referred in Calheiros et al. (2012a). Following the former author
(Burton and Stensel 2003) if the ratio of BOD/COD for untreated wastewater is 0.5 or
greater, the waste is considered to be easily treatable by biological means. In the tannery
sector, based on the Portuguese experience, the ratio varies between 0.23 and 0.66 for waters

Table 1 Typical physico-chemical characteristics of tannery wastewater from Portuguese sector. Range values
(min.-max.) are presented


Pretreatment pH (mS/cm) (mg/L) (mg/L) (mg/L) (mg/L) (mg/L) Reference

Secondary 7.2–8.20 13.3–19.3 68–285 16–88 40–146 3.9–34.2 0.55–3.00 Calheiros et al.
Primary 4.76–8–26 4.74–9.64 835–2261 430–850 43–110 102–160 0.13–0.83 Calheiros et al.
Primary 4.43–8.46 4.74–10.05 808–2449 420–1000 32–324 87–160 0.1–0.95 Calheiros et al.
Primary 4.64–8.75 n.d. 1108–3141 727–1300 33–125 90–230 0.08–0.45 Calheiros et al.

that had primary treatment, and between 0.10 and 0.65 for waters after secondary treat-
ment. The biodegradability of the tannery wastewaters in CWs is affected by their intrinsic
specificity (Calheiros et al. 2007). Besides that, biodegradation is limited by the recalcitrant
properties of the wastewater (Calheiros et al. 2009a). The wastewater characterization is
thus imperious in order to determine the treatment level needed.
Most CWs considered in this review were designed for secondary treatment of tannery
wastewater being the main issue the high organic content (Calheiros et al. 2007, 2008a,
2009c). Two systems have also been setup with the purpose of tertiary treatment of high
salinity tannery wastewater, after a conventional primary treatment followed by a secondary
treatment by means of activated sludge (Calheiros et al. 2012a).

Tannery Wastewater Treatment

In general, the methods for tannery effluent treatment include i) mechanical pretreat-
ment, in order to skimming fats, oil and grease and gravity settling, ii) physico-chemical
treatment, mainly performed to remove organic content, sulphide and chromium, iii) biolog-
ical treatment, where the high organic content is reduced and a nitrification/denitrification
step may be considered, iv) secondary sedimentation (EC 2012; INETI 2000) followed by
a possible step of wastewater polishing, depending on the water reuse purposes or the legal
discharge restrictions. When considering CW as part of a treatment system an efficient pre-
treatment is important before the wastewater is conducted to the CW (Calheiros et al. 2007).
In particular for sulphide bearing and chromium-containing liquors a flow segregation may
be conceived to carry out a preliminary treatment of the concentrated wastewater streams
(EC 2012). Cases such the one reported by Calheiros et al. (2012a), where separation of
water and sludge coming from a secondary was not effective, accidental spills that obliged
to disable one of the CWs units to operate, thus compromising the wastewater treatment.
It is therefore convenient to have backup strategies in order to promptly respond when
accidents occur. Such strategies may comprehend a reservoir in the form of a tank to which
a bypass is connected in order to introduce the wastewater again in the beginning of the
wastewater treatment plant.

CWs Operational Characteristics

There is no legislation or guidelines concerning the operational design parameters
for CW in Portugal, either domestic or industrial. Usually, systems are designed based on
United States Environmental Protection Agency guidelines (USEPA 2000a, 2000b) and on
the directions given in Kadlec and Wallace (2009). In Table 2 the information concerning
the operational conditions applied in CW systems for tannery wastewater is presented.
Taking in consideration the complexity of the wastewater treatment needed, CWs
with surface or subsurface flow may be considered. However, when dealing with industrial
wastewaters such as those coming from the leather industry, where the production process
varies for instance according to the client requirements for the final product (varying the
hazardousness of the contaminants), it is cautious to use subsurface flow, where by no means
the water is in contact with humans or animals. All CWs gathered for tannery wastewater
treatment purposes in Portugal were setup with horizontal subsurface flow, being fed by
gravity, with no pumping support. CWs areas varied between 1.2 m2 and 72 m2 and the
hydraulic loadings varied between CWs according to the trial specificity. Concerning the
CW configuration, a diversity of single units (Calheiros et al. 2007, 2008a) and systems
with two-stage (Calheiros et al. 2009c) and three stage (Calheiros et al. 2012a) alignment
were settled. The latter allowed operational flexibility in the case of unexpected events,
such as the discharge of sludge into the CW cell due to failure in the secondary treatment
In terms of land requirements for CW operation, despite its large footprint, Daniels
has claimed that the area of a full scale biological treatment plant, particularly if sludge
drying beds are considered, can be similar to the area required for a CW (Daniels 2007).

Macrophyte species selection plays an important role and may compromise the treat-
ment if unsuitable for such purpose (Brisson and Chazarenc 2009). According to available
data (Dias et al. 2006) the most frequently used plants in Portuguese CW are P. australis,
T. latifolia, Iris pseudacorus, Juncus effusus, and Cyperus spp. However these data refers
mostly to municipal and domestic type wastewater. In a scenario of industrial wastewater,
such as tannery, Calheiros et al. (2007) reported that I. pseudacorus, Canna indica, and
Stenotphrum secundatum were not suitable for this purpose since their survival rates were
not satisfactory to comply with an effective treatment. On the other hand, P. australis and T.
latifolia have shown to proliferate when fed with the same tannery wastewater (Calheiros
et al. 2007, 2008a, 2009c). Thus, even assuming that implementation and dimensioning of
the CW system has been carefully undertaken, plant adaptation and development may be
compromised due to toxic levels of contaminants and nutrient deficiency occurring in this
type of wastewater. Even when plants survive, data on the relation between plant species
and contaminants removal available in the literature is diverse since there are studies that
did not show significant differences between the used plants and removal efficiency (e.g.,
Calheiros et al. 2009c) while others have reported such differences (e.g., Brisson and Chaz-
arenc 2009). For instance Calheiros et al. (2012a) reported good performance of CW planted
with Sarcocornia spp. and Arundo donax concerning nutrient removal and plant adaptation
in polishing tannery wastewater coming from a conventional wastewater treatment plant,
however A. donax was considered the most promising to be used due to its deeper root zone,
vigorous growth and higher capacity to uptake nutrients (P and N). In sum, plants with high
Table 2 Operational characteristics of constructed wetland (CW) systems for tannery wastewater in Portugal

CW Flow Total surface HLR

treatment N◦ of CW type area (m2) (cm d−1) Vegetation Substrate Reference

Tertiary 2 CW with 3 cells HSF 72 6, 21 Arundo donax Leca NR + sand Calheiros et al. (2010, 2012a)
Sarcocornia fruticosa
Secondary 2 CW with 2 cells HSF 2.4 6, 8, 18 Typha latifolia Leca MR Calheiros et al. (2009a, 2009c)
Phragmites australis
Secondary 3 CW HSF 1.2 6, 8, 18 Typha latifolia Leca MR, NR, gravel Calheiros et al. (2008a, 2008b)
Secondary 5 CW HSF 1.2 3, 6 Canna indica Leca MR Calheiros et al. (2007)
Iris pseudacorus
Phragmites australis
Typha latifolia
Stenotaphrum secundatum

HSF: Horizontal subsurface flow

HLR: Hydraulic loading rate


Figure 1 Constructed wetland planted with Arundo donax for tannery wastewater polishing

biomass, such P. australis, T. latifolia, and A. donax, have shown to have good capacity to
uptake nutrients (Calheiros et al. 2009c, 2012a) and other metal pollutants found in tannery
wastewater (Bragato et al. 2004; Calheiros et al. 2008b) bringing more efficiency to the
treatment system. Even within the same industrial sector, the plants selected to be used in
CW may be different. For instance Calheiros et al. (2012a), when dealing with high salinity
tannery wastewater, selected Arundo donax (Figure 1) and Sarcocornia, plants that due to
their intrinsic characteristics would be expected to be resilient to the imposed conditions.
Bassica indica is an example of other species that tolerate high salinity as presented by
Shelef et al. (2012).

Wetland Media
The media in CW with subsurface flow should be effective in providing a good
support for plants development, establishment and propagation, for microbial communities
attachment and a satisfactory hydraulic conductivity. If possible, it should be acquired
locally in order to reduce the transportation costs and potentiate local economy. Studies
undertaken in Bangladesh (Saeed et al. 2012), when employed locally available substrates
(i.e., organic coco-peat, cupola slag, and pea gravel) showed different results that have been
in part related to the matrices porosity. Calheiros et al. (2009b) concluded that the type
of substrate and the presence of T. latifolia had a major effect on the species richness and
the structure of bacterial communities, when testing three substrates (two expanded clay
aggregates and one type of gravel) (Figure 2) and one unplanted unit. The type of substrate

Figure 2 Constructed wetland pilot units planted with Typha latifolia in a) Filtralite
MR 3–8, b) fine gravel -

AGH 4–8 and c) Filtralite NR 3–8.

may also influence the plant propagation and the organic removal from the wastewater
(Calheiros et al. 2008a).


Records of the use of CW for tannery industry in the world are available. At a pilot
or industrial scale there are examples in Italy (Bragato et al. 2004), India (Emmanuel and
Anand 2007), México (Aguilar et al. 2008), Morocco (Tiglyene et al. 2005), Bangladesh
(Saeed et al. 2012), Tanzania (Kaseva and Mbuligwe 2010), Turkey (Kucuk et al. 2003), UK
(Daniels 1998) and USA (Dotro et al. 2010). The construction costs associated with CWs
correspond to ca 10–20% of the conventional secondary biological treatment and running
costs account for approximately 10% (Daniels 2007), although it may vary according to the
country where the system is implemented. Dias et al. (2006) referred that in the Portuguese
scenario the capital costs, with pretreatment included, are equivalent to a conventional
treatment, however, concerning the operation and maintenance cost the same authors state
they are at least 6–20 times lower.
Treatment efficiencies concerning CW applied to leather industry in Portugal are
summarized in Table 3. Based on these findings, an organic loading of about 210 kg
BOD ha−1d−1 should not be exceeded if the BOD discharge limits for tannery industry
are considered (Calheiros et al. 2009c), although these systems are capable of sustaining
loadings of 1800 Kg BOD ha−1 d−1 and still provide high organic removals, up to about
610 kg BOD ha−1d−1. Emmanuel and Anand (2007) also registered similar reductions
in organic content—621.2 Kg BOD ha−1 d−1- when using CWs. The application of CW
to tannery wastewater is focused on the major leather producing countries and different
systems are reported (Table 4), although the horizontal flow system is the most commonly
adopted. In general, CWs dealing with tannery wastewaters have shown high organic
removal (COD), which is the case of 54–73% (1755–2669 mg/L) (Calheiros et al. 2007)
and 87% (1160 mg/L) (Daniels, 1998). A CW also with high efficiency (96–98% of an
inlet COD 12,340–17,520 mg/L) is the one presented by Aguilar et al. (2008), in which the
chromium removal was also monitored. As mentioned before, usually there is a pre-stage
for chromium removal, however traces of the element may still enter in the CW. Authors
such as Kaseva and Mbuligwe (2010), Dotro et al. (2010) and Tiglyene et al. (2005)

Table 3 Constructed wetlands treatment efficiencies concerning organic loadings (OL) and organic removals

(kg BOD (kg BOD (kg COD (kg COD
CW plant and substrate ha−1 d−1) ha−1 d−1) ha−1 d−1) ha−1 d−1) Reference

T. latifolia in expanded clay 252–1800 117–612 485–3849 221–1599 (Calheiros et al.

T. latifolia in fine gravel 252–1800 96–486 485–3849 167–1259 (Calheiros et al.
P. australis series in 126–900 72–529 242–1925 141–1283 (Calheiros et al.
expanded clay 2009c)
T. latifolia series in 126–900 73–500 242–1925 152–1294 (Calheiros et al.
expanded clay 2009c)
A. donax series in expanded 9–458 6–363 38–885 23–615 (Calheiros et al.
clay and sand 2012a)
Sarcocornia series in 9–458 6–350 38–885 22–538 (Calheiros et al.
expanded clay and sand 2012a)

have claimed that CW may be considered a viable and optional technology for chromium
removal in tannery effluent. Records of Cr removal efficiencies of 90 to 99% (5 mg/L at
the inlet) (Dotro et al. 2010), of 99.83 ± 0.19 (371.70 ± 44.48 mg/L at the inlet) (Kaseva
and Mbuligwe 2010) and of 97 to 100% (2.2–3 mg/L at the inlet) (Tiglyene et al. 2005)
have been published. Caution must be taken with the concentration in vegetal detritus after
prune maintenance is undertaken.
When addressing the phosphorus and nitrogen removal, it has been reported that
the performance is lower when compared to the organics removal, although in some way
expected for this type of systems (Kadlec et al. 2000). For example, Calheiros et al. (2008a),
reported that for an inlet of 0.21–0.43 mg P/L the outlet was 0.18–0.35 mg P/L and for an
inlet of 63–87 mg NH3 -N/L the outlet was 40–56 mg NH3 -N/L. Removal of PO4 reaching
61% (inlet 15 (±7) mg/L, hydraulic retention time = 12.5 d) has been reported for the
treatment of tannery wastewater by CW in Bangladesh (Saeed et al. 2012). High removal
of NH4 -N (99%) from tannery effluents has been reported by Kucuk et al. (2003) for an
inlet of 20 mg/L at a hydraulic retention time of 7 days. Kucuk et al. (2003) has stated
that although COD and PO4 -P are not significantly affected by HRT the ammonia-nitrogen
removal is, which is an important factor when dimensioning the CW system. It is known
that tannery wastewater with high salt contents is difficult to be treated by conventional
biological means (Durai and Rajasimman 2011). Calheiros et al. (2012a) managed to prove
CWs efficiency for organic removal (up to 615 kg COD ha−1 d−1) in the presence of
high salinity. Shelef et al. (2012), when using Bassia indica in a CW, besides the plant
resilience, also registered salinity reduction by 20–60% in comparison with unplanted
systems or systems planted with other wetland plants.
As Faulwetter et al. (2009) emphasized, the most important factor that has influence
on the pollutant removal in CWs is the microbiology inherent to the system, however
there are not many detailed studies on the microbial communities established in such sys-
tems. On his review the prevalence of certain microbial groups related to the removal of
certain pollutants in CWs, such as nitrifiers, denitrifiers, and sulfate reducing and oxidiz-
ing bacteria, is stated. Bacterial community dynamics in horizontal flow CW for tannery
wastewater treatment was assessed by Calheiros et al. (2009a, 2009b) and also when
Table 4 Examples of the use of constructed wetlands for tannery wastewater in operation worldwide (adapted from Calheiros et al. 2012b)
Operational data Performance data

Flow Inlet Outlet Inlet Outlet Inlet Outlet

Flow Plant Area or HLR/ COD (mg/L) BOD BOD (mg/L) Chromium Chromium (mg/L)
Country type species (m2) HRT (d) (mg/L) (% removal) (mg/L) (% removal) (mg/L) (% removal) Reference

Bangladesh VF-HF-VF P. australis 0.65–1.33–0.65 6 (cm/d)/ 11500 ± 6000 200 ± 60 (98) 4200 ± 2800 80 ± 40 (98) — — Saeed et al. (2012)
India HF Typha — 47.5 (m3/d) / – 1347 – (78) 649 – (93) — — UNIDO (2001)
HF Reed bed — — 1751 579 (–) 776 117 (–) — — Emmanuel and Anand
Italy FWS Carex spp. 60 160 (L/h) / 3–3.5 — — — — 0.41 – (71) Bragato et al. (2004)
Marocco VF P. australis 120 (L) 35 (mL/min) / – 530–1216 408–750 (–) — — 534–1000 2.2–3 (99) Tiglyene et al. (2005)
Mexico — Typha spp., S. 450 20 (L/min) / aprox. 12340–17520 68–598 675–1320 36–86 (93–95) 22–31 0.07–0.08 (99) Aguilar et al. (2008)
americanus 2 (96–98)
Portugal HF T. latifolia 1.2 6 (cm/d) / 3.4 1755–2669 600–915 740–1300 345–630 <0.010–0.027 <0.001–0.080 (–) Calheiros et al. (2007)
(54–73) (41–58)
HF P. australis 2.4 18 (cm/d) / 2 1354–2138 500–713 720–1000 353–441 0.021–0.885 0.009–2.63 (–) Calheiros et al.
(57–67) (48–59) (2009c)
HF A. donax 72 4 (m /d) / 2 68–285 27–120 16–88 (–) 4–16 (–) — — Calheiros et al.
Tanzania HF P. mauritianus 0.45 0.045 ± 0.005 — — — — 371.70 ± 44.48 0.69 ± 0.65 (99.83 Kaseva and Mbuligwe
(m3/d) / 1.8 ± 0.2 ± 0.19) (2010)
Turkey HF P. australis 378 –/8 210 – (30) — — 0. 20 0.01–0.05 (43–55) Kucuk et al. (2003)
UK HF G. maxima — –/5 1160 150 (87) — — — — Daniels (1998)
USA HF Typha spp. 0.31 11.25 (L/d) / – 980 — 526 5–220 (95–99) 5 0.05–0.2 (90–99) Dotro et al. (2010)


high salinity conditions were present (Calheiros et al. 2010). Strains recovered from CWs
treating tannery wastewater have been identified as belonging to genera Pseudomonas,
Bacillus, Halomonas, and Paracoccus (Calheiros et al. 2009a, 2009b). Genera related
with bacteria present in CWs treating high salinity tannery wastewater include Algoripha-
gus, Bacillus, Halomonas, Staphylococus, Rheinheimera, Sphingomonas, Flavobacterium,
Pseudomonas, and Listonella (Calheiros et al. 2010). Main outcomes stated that the type
of substrate and the presence or absent of plants had a major effect on the species richness
and the bacterial communities structure. When different plants were considered, the type
of plant had also a major effect on the established bacterial communities.

The preservation of tannery industry is very important, especially to Portugal, due to
its historical and economic values. The sustainability of water management at an industrial
scale is directly related with the fluxes of the production process. The experience obtained
with CWs for tannery wastewater treatment has revealed that these systems act as a reliable
choice as secondary or tertiary treatment. The subsurface flow system with expanded clay
as main media and vegetated with high biomass producers, P. australis or T. latifolia or A.
donax has proved to be effective providing depuration of this type of wastewater.
The low cost of implementation, low maintenance and the fact that specialize per-
sonnel to operate them is not needed, are the main assets of the technology.

Cristina S. C. Calheiros thank to Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT,
Portugal) the grant SFRH/BPD/63204/2009. This work was also supported by National
Funds from FCT through project PEst-OE/EQB/LA0016/2011.

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