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Key aspects of the new Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive

  • Key aspects of the new Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive
    Galindo WWTP, Sestao, Spain (Credit: Pablo González-Cebrián/Fotos iAgua).
  • With the revised Directive, the EU marks a significant milestone in sustainable water management and environmental protection.
  • Tertiary and quaternary wastewater treatment, Extended Producer Responsibility and energy neutrality are key aspects.

With the agreement between the European Council and Parliament on the revised Directive 91/271 on Urban Wastewater Treatment, the European Union marks a significant milestone in sustainable water management and environmental protection. It aims to reduce the pollution load discharged into the environment, align the directive with the European Green Deal and to establish a sound governance framework.

This agreement reflects a renewed commitment to innovation, responsibility and sustainability in water treatment, addressing the contemporary challenges of climate change, pollution and resource scarcity. "The agreement with the Parliament puts us on the right track to reach our zero-pollution objective for Europe" said Alain Maron, minister of the Government of the Brussels-Capital Region, responsible for climate change, environment, energy and participatory democracy.

This legislative change marks a significant advance in corporate environmental responsibility, aligning industrial interests with the preservation of natural resources and the protection of public health. Under the new measures, more nutrients will be removed from urban wastewater and new standards will be applied to micropollutants, as well as applying to a broader number of areas.

This agreement reflects a renewed commitment to innovation, responsibility and sustainability in water treatment

Thus, tertiary and quaternary wastewater treatment, Extended Producer Responsibility and energy neutrality are the key aspects of this renewed directive, which marks a new phase in water management at the European level.

Wastewater treatment

Thus, in order to reduce chemicals and pollutants in clean water, the new Directive will require the removal of more nutrients and micropollutants from urban wastewater, in particular from toxic pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. In addition, it will introduce systematic monitoring of microplastics at the inlets and outlets of urban wastewater treatment plants, as well as additional monitoring of PFAS, whose regulatory framework at the global level is still under development.

To this end, the revised Directive extends to all urban agglomerations of 1,000 p.e. or more the obligation to apply secondary treatment (removal of biodegradable organic matter) to wastewater by 2035. However, the novelty focuses on the harmonization of thresholds and deadlines for tertiary treatment (removal of nitrogen and phosphorus) and quaternary treatment (removal of a broad spectrum of micropollutants), to be implemented by 2039 and 2045, respectively, in large treatment plants of 150,000 p.e. and more, with intermediate targets in 2033 and 2036 for tertiary treatment and in 2033 and 2039 for quaternary treatment.

The new Directive will require the removal of more nutrients and micropollutants from urban wastewater, in particular from toxic pharmaceuticals and cosmetics

It should be noted that the incorporation of quaternary treatments in the directive underlines the importance of achieving cleaner and safer water standards, meeting emerging challenges in water pollution.

Extended Producer Responsibility

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a principle in environmental management that extends the responsibility of manufacturers beyond production to cover the entire life cycle of products, including their eventual treatment and disposal. Although it is a principle more focused on the waste sector, the new directive has set a precedent in environmental management by requiring the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries to finance a significant part of wastewater treatment.

Thus, in line with the "polluter pays" principle, for the first time, pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies will have to pay at least 80% of the cost of eliminating micropollutants (quaternary treatment), as well as the costs of collection and verification and other costs necessary for compliance with the EPR. According to Eduardo Orteu and Ignacio Álvarez Serrano, from Spanish law firm Grupo de Sostenibilidad de Gómez Acebo & Pombo, this implies "a high economic investment for its implementation", however, there is flexibility as to how to distribute the remaining costs with national financing, in order to avoid undesired consequences on the availability, affordability and accessibility of vital products.

For the first time, pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies will have to pay at least 80% of the cost of eliminating micropollutants

With the application of EPR to wastewater treatment, greater collaboration between industries and water management entities is promoted, encouraging cleaner production practices and the reduction of pollutants at source, which facilitates treatment and improves water quality.

Energy neutrality

The urban wastewater treatment sector can play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, so the new directive introduces an energy neutrality target for these facilities. This means that by 2045, urban wastewater treatment plants will have to produce energy from renewable sources.

In this regard, through the implementation of innovative technologies and sustainable practices, the aim is to enable treatment plants to significantly reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and their environmental impact. This approach not only contributes to environmental sustainability, but also offers long-term economic benefits by reducing operating costs and potentially generating revenue through the sale of surplus energy.

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