On October 26 2022, the European Commission presented its draft revisions to the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive.
This revision, as it stands, is a formidable opportunity for the wastewater treatment sector to meet new societal and environmental challenges.
Adopted in 1991, the Directive on Urban Wastewater Treatment has, over more than 30 years, enabled improvements in the quality of streams, rivers and coastal waters of all of Europe. This lesser-known role is nevertheless essential: the directive made it compulsory that all agglomerations with more than 2,000 inhabitants in member countries are equipped with systems to collect and process wastewater, and thus led to a dramatic decline in the amount of pollutants discharged into the natural environment.
Since then, technological progress has highlighted the emergence of new pollutants. The toxicity of pollutants such as microplastics, micropollutants and chemicals (PFAS) has been confirmed. Setting processing thresholds for these pollutants, as made possible by the directive, is essential therefore to better take account of their presence in wastewater. Solutions exist and it is vital that they are rolled out everywhere. Such change is all the more pressing in light of new uses of this wastewater — re-use for irrigation in agriculture, watering of public green spaces, recovery of sewage sludge and more — which are likely to experience exponential growth in the coming years.
The revision of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive will also ensure the consequences of climate change are better addressed. The frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall represent a threat to the efficiency of sanitation systems and the preservation of natural habitats. Proposed as part of the directive, the widespread introduction of integrated water management plans for certain agglomerations will help reduce the flooding and pollution due to rainfall on natural habitats. It is essential to take advantage of digital technology to monitor in real time infrastructures and anticipate such events.
Another major area of progress is the introduction of the principle of extended producer responsibility for medicinal products for human use and cosmetic products. On the one hand, it will enable the acceleration of the eco-design of these products and therefore reduce at source the presence of pollutants in wastewater. On the other hand, it represents a first step in the essential paradigm shift in terms of financing sanitation systems to introduce a balanced cost sharing: users and/or local communities will no longer have to bear all the cost of processing pollution for which they are not responsible. The proposed extended producer responsibility system will help public authorities to finance more advanced treatment solutions. At SUEZ, we have been experiencing for years the principle of extended producer responsibility in the waste sector. We believe it is crucial that these financing means also find a large place in the future of the water sector.
Lastly, the revised directive highlights the benefits of sanitation, via epidemiological monitoring of wastewater as a tool to protect public health. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this expertise and accelerated the development of innovative solutions to monitor the spread of the virus thanks to sanitation networks, like the COVID-19 City Watch developed by SUEZ. Progress made in terms of analysis of chemical and biological markers in wastewater paves the way for new collaborations with managers of sanitation systems and health authorities. The obligation for member countries to implement monitoring systems for their wastewater will allow a consolidated vision of public health indicators (such as viruses, drug usage, consumption of medicinal products) and the possibility of implementing targeted prevention campaigns. The use of sanitation systems to promote public health is part of the “One Health” approach, which, with the adoption of a cross-functional approach to human, animal and environmental health, should enable better anticipation of major global pandemics.
We are delighted with the ambitious goals of the draft revision to the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, the paradigm shift it heralds and its recognition of the key role sanitation plays in public health. By maintaining its high ambitions, the European Union, in line with the Green Deal, will continue to be at the forefront in the fight to protect our environment.