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The European Commission has published draft revisions of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD 91/271), adding the objective of nutrient recovery and tightening phosphorus removal requirements for sewage worksThis regulatory proposal now goes to discussion in the European Parliament and Council.

The Commission’s Explanatory Memorandum indicates that the evaluation of the UWWTD concluded that it has been successful in improving water quality, largely because of clear and simple requirements. The indicated objectives of the revision are to address emerging pollutants, storm overflow and discharges from small villages and isolated households, and to ensure coherence with Green Deal climate, biomethane production and Circular Economy objectives, in particular “better recovery of nitrogen, phosphorus and maybe organics”. Implementation deadlines are phased through to 2040.

The Commission estimates that overall the new requirements will add c. 2.3% to water tariffs.

Proposed changes from the existing Directive include:

  • More stringent discharge limits for phosphorus and nitrogen (Annex I)
    - 0.5 mgPtotal/l or 90% P removal, or (was 1-2 mgl/ or 80%)
    - 6 mgN/l or 85%N removal (was 10-15 mg/l or 70-80%)
    - these limits would be applicable (as before) to all wwtps > 10 000 p.e. in eutrophication Sensitive Areas,
    but additionally would be applicable to wwtps > 100 000 p.e. even if not in Sensitive Areas.
    - the concept of Less Sensitive Areas would be abolished (required less treatment)
  • “The Commission would be empowered to adopt delegated act … (to set out) minimum reuse and recycling rates for phosphorus and nitrogen from sludge” (art. 20)
    ESPP notes:
    - the Explanatory Memorandum refers to “nutrients and maybe organic carbon” but in fact this is limited to N and P
    - the wording “reuse and recycling” could include valorisation of sludge in agriculture
    - the minimum rates, by this wording, would apply to N and P in the sludge, not in wwtp inflow, which would be particularly different for N. It also would not take account of nutrients recovered upstream, e.g. with separative urine collection.
  • Waste water treatments would have to be “energy neutral” by 2040. Energy neutrality is defined as “total renewable energy produced at wwtps” versus total energy used by the plants. Calculation is as national total, not per wwtp.
    ESPP note: this is very different from climate neutrality, in that wwtp NOx, N2O and CH4 emissions are not taken into account, nor are emissions in sludge management outside the wwtp, nor are climate impacts of nutrient recovery (substituted fertilisers), nor carbon sequestration in sewage sludge to land. Indeed, the wording could be read as considering that installation of a number of wind turbines on wwtp sites would be sufficient.
  • Collection and treatment of wastewater for all agglomerations > 1 000 p.e. (was 2 000 p.e.) (art. 3.2, 6.2)
  • A new concept of “Quaternary treatment” is introduced. (art. 8 and Annex I). This requires at least 80% removal of indicator organic pollutants. It would be obligatory for all wwtps > 100 000 p.e. and for all wwtps > 10 000 p.e where a pollution risk is identified, or discharging into bathing waters, etc.
  • Extended producer responsibility” (EPR) would be implemented for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics only, such that companies placing these on the market must cover the full costs of monitoring and quaternary treatment (art.9, Annex III)
    ESPP note: this EPR does not thus cover industrial chemicals such as PFAS, plastic additives, nor agro-chemicals.
  • The Commission would develop a methodology for measuring microplastics in wastewater and in sludge, and then these would have to be monitored in wwtps > 10 000 p.e. (art. 21)
  • Promote water reuse (art. 15)
  • A new concept of “Integrated urban wastewater management plans” would be obligatory for all agglomerations > 100 000 p.e. and all > 10 000 p.e. where stormwater or urban runoff meet certain conditions (art. 5, Annex V)
  • New definitions of “sludge”, “micro-pollutant”, “antimicrobial resistance” …(art. 2)

NOTE: above obligations are the proposed final requirement, in some cases intermediate levels are fixed for certain date horizons. The articles/annexes cited refer to the revision proposal as published (not to the numbering in the existing 1991 Directive). The above is in many cases a simplification, please refer to the published regulatory proposal for precise detail.

The Commission also published at the same time modifications of the Environmental Quality Standards, Groundwater and Water Framework Directives are proposed. These concern chemical pollutants in water, and in particular address “emerging contaminants of concern” including PFAS, microplastics and pharmaceuticals.

ESPP welcomes these proposals as ambitious and pragmatic to continue to improve Europe’s water quality, to further limit phosphorus and nitrogen losses, to move towards the Nutrient Circular Economy and to address emerging pollutants, in particular PFAS, pharmaceuticals and micro-plastics.

European Commission “Proposal for a revised Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive”, 26th October 2022

European Commission “Proposal for a Directive amending the Water Framework Directive, the Groundwater Directive and the Environmental Quality Standards Directive”, 26th October 2022

INCOPA-Cefic press release 27th October 2022.

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