EU Agrees on Updates to Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive
The European Council and the European Parliament today reached a provisional political agreement on a proposal to review the urban wastewater treatment directive. The revised directive is one of the key deliverables under the EU’s zero-pollution action plan.
The urban wastewater treatment directive was adopted in 1991. The objective of this directive is to ‘protect the environment from adverse effects of wastewater discharges from urban sources and specific industries’. Under the current directive, member states are required to ensure that wastewater from all agglomerations above 2,000 inhabitants is collected and treated according to EU minimum standards.
The Commission conducted an evaluation of the directive in 2019. This evaluation confirmed that the implementation of the directive has led to a significant reduction in pollutant releases. Today 98% of EU wastewaters are adequately collected and 92% adequately treated.
However, the evaluation showed that there are still sources of pollution that are not yet adequately addressed by the current rules. These include pollution from smaller agglomerations, storm water overflows and micropollutants that damage the environment. Additionally, the evaluation highlighted the urban wastewater sector as one of the largest consumers of energy in the public sector.The new rules aim to address these remaining issues and improve the sector’s contribution to achieving the EU’s climate goals.
By recognising the wastewater treatment sector’s potential to contribute to significantly reducing EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the new rules introduce a deadline to reach energy neutrality in the sector, as well as an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme to ensure fair contribution of the most polluting sectors to wastewater treatment for micropollutants.
The deal is provisional pending formal adoption by both institutions. Amongst the changes agreed on are measures to address pollution from small agglomerations. As such the scope of the directive will include all agglomerations of 1,000 population equivalent (p.e.) and above, as opposed to the 2,000 p.e. in the current directive.
Other measures includes the covering of additional costs entailed by quaternary treatment, which is the removal of a broad spectrum of micropollutants, and in line with the ‘polluter pays principle’, producers of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics leading to urban wastewater pollution by micropollutants would need to contribute a minimum of 80% of the costs of this additional treatment, through an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme.
It was also agreed that the urban wastewater treatment sector could play a significant role in significantly reducing GHG emissions and helping the EU achieve its climate neutrality objective. They introduced an energy neutrality target, meaning that by 2045 urban wastewater treatment plants will have to produce energy from renewable sources, based on regular energy audits, with progressive intermediate targets. This energy can be produced on or off-site, and up to 35% of non-fossil energy can be purchased from external sources. This percentage only applies to the final target.