On October 26, 2022, the European Commission presented its draft revision of the directive on the treatment of urban waste water.
This revision is a tremendous opportunity for the sanitation sector to meet new societal and environmental challenges.
Adopted in 1991, the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive has for over 30 years improved the quality of streams, rivers and coastal waters across Europe. This lesser-known role is nevertheless essential: the directive has made it compulsory to equip all agglomerations with more than 2,000 inhabitants in the member countries with wastewater collection and treatment systems, and has thus led to a spectacular drop in the amount of pollutants released 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. The setting of treatment thresholds for these pollutants, as permitted by the directive, is therefore essential to better take into account their presence in wastewater. Solutions exist and it is essential that they be deployed everywhere. This development is all the more necessary in view of the new uses of this wastewater – reuse for irrigation in agriculture, watering of public green spaces, recovery of sewage sludge… – which should experience exponential growth in coming years.
The revision of the directive on urban waste water treatment will also ensure that the consequences of climate change are better taken into account. The frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall pose a threat to the effectiveness of sanitation systems and the preservation of natural habitats. Proposed within the framework of the directive, the generalization of integrated water management plans for certain agglomerations will contribute to reducing flooding and pollution due to precipitation on natural habitats. It is essential to take advantage of digital to monitor infrastructures in real time and anticipate such events.
Another major step forward 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 speed up the eco-design of these products and therefore reduce the presence of pollutants in wastewater at source. On the other hand, it represents a first step in the essential paradigm shift in the financing of sanitation systems to establish balanced cost sharing: users and/or local authorities will no longer have to bear the full cost of treating the pollution for which they are responsible. not responsible. The proposed Extended Producer Responsibility system will help governments finance more advanced treatment solutions. At SUEZ, we have been experimenting for years with the principle of extended producer responsibility in the waste sector. We believe that it is crucial that these means of financing also find a large place in the future of the water sector.
Finally, the revised directive highlights the benefits of sanitation, via the epidemiological surveillance of wastewater as a tool for protecting public health. The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on this expertise and accelerated the development of innovative solutions to monitor the spread of the virus through sanitation networks, such as the COVID-19 City Watch developed by SUEZ. Advances in the analysis of chemical and biological markers in wastewater are paving the way for new collaborations with sanitation system managers and health authorities. The obligation for member countries to put in place surveillance systems for their wastewater will allow a consolidated view of public health indicators (such as viruses, drug use, drug consumption) and the possibility of set up targeted prevention campaigns. The use of sanitation systems in the service of public health is part of the “One Health” approach which, with the adoption of a cross-cutting approach to human, animal and environmental health, should make it possible to better anticipate major global pandemics.
We welcome the ambitious objectives of the draft revision of the directive on the treatment of urban waste water, the change of paradigm that it announces and its recognition of the key role played by sanitation in public health. By maintaining its high ambitions, the European Union, in line with the Green Deal, will continue to be at the forefront of the fight to protect our environment.