The EU is bringing its wastewater targets into the 21st century

The European Commission’s proposed directive will promote wastewater treatment and increase the use of renewable energy in the wastewater sector. There will be better control of industrial wastewater discharges and more attention paid to microplastics and micropollutants.

Reforming a 31-year-old directive

The European Commission published a proposal for a new urban wastewater directive this week. The earlier directive, drawn up in 1991, and the related investment funding substantially improved wastewater treatment in the European Union by obligating member states to expand the coverage of their sewer systems and set water treatment targets. However, it no longer meets today’s needs. For example, people were largely unaware of the significance of ensuring energy efficiency, mitigating climate change or promoting the circular economy in wastewater treatment 30 or more years ago. In addition, today’s wastewater contains a wider range of harmful substances than before.

Energy neutrality and urban runoff are new focuses of development

The proposed directive, which will soon come before the European Parliament, requires the wastewater sector to become energy neutral by 2040. This is an achievable target, especially with the help of energy savings, reductions in methane emissions, and biogasification of sludge.

Furthermore, the proposal sets more stringent requirements for wastewater treatment while expanding the scope of the directive to encompass smaller population centres, as well as rain and thaw waters. In the future, member states will be required to prepare plans for treating urban runoff.

Better control over industrial wastewater discharges

We worked on the BEST project, which sought solutions for ensuring that nutrients and harmful substances discharged in industrial wastewater do not impede the processes at wastewater treatment plants. The project resulted in guidelines for managing industrial wastewater in the Baltic Sea region, prepared in English by Afry, as well as policy briefs published in seven languages. A HELCOM policy brief was also drawn up based on the results.

It is gratifying to see the policy recommendations we raised in the BEST project come to fruition: the proposed directive will require operators to obtain permission from the competent authority before discharging industrial wastewater into the sewer network. It will also call for the consultation of water utilities, monitoring of the industrial wastewater quality, and penalties for non-compliance.

Expansions to producer liability will engage the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries

The expanded producer liability is an entirely new aspect of the regulation: the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries and importers of products in these industries will be obligated to contribute to the wastewater treatment costs arising from the use of their products. The fee will be based on the quantities and harmfulness of the products brought to market. In other words, it will be derived from the excess costs that wastewater treatment plants incur due to microplastics and micropollutants. Existing plants are unable to remove these substances from circulation, and the proposed directive does not clarify how new wastewater treatment methods should be introduced.

In Finland, the same principle of expanded producer liability applies to the costs of recycling packaging, which are borne by the producers of packaging materials.

But shouldn’t the polluter always pay for the treatment of wastewater? And what can be done to stop harmful substances from being discharged into the sewer?

In Finland, a higher wastewater fee is recommended if the quality and quantity of wastewater deviate from the norms. This is a fair way of sharing the burden of treatment costs between consumers and industry, as well as between different industrial sectors. The “polluter pays” principle must not fall victim to regional or industrial policy objectives. Naturally, cities may endeavour to attract jobs and corporation tax payers, but they must not weaken their industrial wastewater treatment requirements to the detriment of residents and the environment.

Consumer wastewater is also a cocktail of nutrients and pharmaceutical, fireproofing and surface treatment residues. The European Commission also proposes to monitor microplastics and add several new substances to the watch list. These include pharmaceuticals, bisphenol A, which is a component of polycarbonate plastics, and PFAS compounds, which are used in many consumer products, such as kitchenware and electronics. As consumers, we definitely need more information on how our choices affect the discharges of harmful substances.

Another big question is whether we should invest more and more money and energy in advanced treatment methods to remove harmful substances from wastewater (which, in the worst case, may only end up transferring them to sludge) or whether it would make more sense to prevent emissions. Sweden’s Revaq quality management system has succeeded in reducing emissions “at source”. Revaq aims to improve the quality of wastewater sludge by influencing the quality of the wastewater sent to treatment plants. The treatment plants belonging to the system trace the discharges of harmful substances and make agreements with organisations such as hospitals and industrial plants to reduce discharges.

Sludge is still up for discussion

The proposed directive will allow the European Commission to set targets for reusing phosphorus in sludge. Nutrient- and carbon-rich wastewater sludge is a resource that should be exploited to promote a circular economy mindset. At the same time, it is also important to curb greenhouse gas emissions and avoid releasing harmful substances into the environment. It is challenging to reconcile these three objectives, as we explain in the policy recommendations of the Sustainable Biogas project. This topic will be a source of debate at the EU and national levels when the time comes to reform the Sludge Directive.

Anna Saarentaus
Senior Specialist, Marine environment
John Nurminen Foundation