On Monday, January 29, the European Parliament and the European Council came to an agreement on new legislation targeting municipal wastewater. It is about collecting, treating and discharging them in such a way as to ensure higher standards of environmental protection and citizens’ health. This follows a proposal put forward by the European Commission in October 2022. At the time, it called for a revision of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive – better aligning it with the EU’s policy goals of climate action, circular economy and pollution reduction. These are among the key regulations created as part of the EU’s plan to eliminate water, soil and air pollution.
Wastewater treatment and water circular management
As part of the agreement, it was agreed that by 2035. All agglomerations with a population equivalent (p.e.) of 1,000 or more will have to use secondary wastewater treatment. This means removing biodegradable organic matter before the wastewater is discharged into the environment. By 2039. EU countries will have to use tertiary treatment (i.e., nitrogen and phosphorus removal) at all treatment plants covering 150,000 p.e. and above, and by 2045. In those above 10,000 p.e.
Additional treatment that removes a broad spectrum of micropollutants, or fourth stage treatment, will apply to all plants operating for agglomerations above 150,000 p.e. (and above 10,000 p.e. based on risk assessment) after 2045.
The p.e. (population equivalent) is a parameter describing industrial wastewater. It compares the industry’s potential to pollute the environment with biodegradable organic matter with the number of people who would produce the same pollution load. The number of p.e. expresses the ratio of the total pollution load generated in 24 hours by industrial and service facilities to the individual pollution load in domestic wastewater generated by one person in the same period.
The agreed text of the agreement requires member states to promote the reuse of treated wastewater. This applies to all municipal wastewater treatment plants in specific cases, especially in areas with insufficient water resources. National strategies to prevent water shortages have recommended including measures to enable water reuse. The European Parliament and the European Council must formally approve the agreement before it enters into force.
Municipal wastewater – monitoring and reducing emissions at the treatment plant
Negotiators decided to improve monitoring of chemical contaminants, pathogens and antimicrobial resistance. Their goal is to record parameters affecting public health, such as SARS-CoV-2 virus and its variants, polio and influenza viruses, and new pathogens. It was also decided to observe chemical contaminants, including so-called perennial chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs) and microplastics. AMR will be monitored when municipal wastewater comes from agglomerations with a p.e. of 100,000 or more.
The text of the agreement emphasizes that the municipal wastewater treatment sector must play a significant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and help the EU achieve its climate neutrality goal. Therefore, an energy-neutrality target has been introduced, which means that municipal wastewater treatment plants will have to gradually, each year, increase the share of renewable energy in their overall consumption. Thus, by 2030 they will have to use RES at 20 percent, by 2035 at 40 percent, by 2040 at 70 percent, until 2045, when RES will meet 100 percent of their demand.
Extended producer responsibility
In accordance with the principle: the polluter pays, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was introduced for medicinal products for human use and cosmetic products. Manufacturers of such preparations will be required to cover 80 percent. cost of additional treatment (fourth stage) to effectively remove micropollutants from municipal wastewater. However, they will be supported by domestic subsidies to avoid unintended consequences such as reducing the availability and affordability of key products, particularly medicines.
Rapporteur Nils Torvalds(Renew Europe Group, Finland) said: The agreement we reached today is a breakthrough for much better water management and wastewater treatment standards in Europe, especially with new regulations for the removal of micropollutants from medicines and personal care products. We assure you that the impact of these regulations on drug affordability will not be disproportionate, and that harmful chemicals such as PFAS will be monitored and better removed in the future.