Two years after the presentation of the Zero Pollution Action Plan, the European Commission followed up with a package of legislative proposals to strengthen EU rules on ambient air, surface and groundwater pollutants, and urban wastewater treatment. The aim is to achieve zero air and water pollution by 2050. The publication of the proposal for a revised Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive and the revised list of surface and groundwater pollutants comes at a time when water is becoming one of the most pressing issues to be addressed, getting to the top of the – already very busy – EU green agenda. From floods to man-made pollution and water scarcity the challenges are clear. Therefore, EU water policy is expected to play a key role not only at EU level – as shown by the Zero Pollution Package – but also at international level, with the UN Water conference scheduled in March 2023, addressing water and biodiversity.   

If you want to know more about the key measures introduced by the Zero Pollution Package then we have you covered. Below we list some of the key measures proposed by the new rules, assessing the concrete impact for the water sector and for businesses .  

Make the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive fit for 2050

Adopted in 1991, the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive clearly struggled to catch up with the new challenges and technologies that have emerged in the last 30 years. It has lacked – amongst other things – a focus on pollution. The proposed revision aims to improve the cleanliness of Europe’s rivers, lakes, groundwaters and seas to achieve a pollution free environment by 2050, while making wastewater treatment more cost-effective, as follows: 

  • Save energy & reduce greenhouse gas emissions: As wastewater treatment is one of the biggest consumers of energy in the public sector, it is no surprise that the new rules will introduce a binding energy neutrality target for the sector by 2040.  
  • Improve water quality & access to sanitation: Municipalities over 1000 inhabitants would no longer be exempted from obligations to treat water while integrated water management plans to better handle heavy rains will be introduced for larger cities. Moreover, following the pandemic, the European Commission suggests a systematic monitoring of wastewater for viruses, amongst which CoV-SARS-19, and a better control of septic tanks.  EU member states will be required to ensure access to sanitation for all, in particular vulnerable and marginalised groups.   
  • Make the industry pay to treat micropollutants: Following the principle of the polluter pays, a new Extended Producer Responsibility scheme will be set up to address 92% micro-pollutants found in EU wastewaters that come from pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. 
  • Improve circularity in the water sector: to promote a circular economy of the wastewater treatment sector, the quality of sludge will be improved to allow for more re-use. To increase the possibilities of re-using sludge and treated wastewater EU countries will be required to track industrial pollution at source and avoid the loss of resources. An obligation to recover nutrients from wastewater swill be set, with new rules on recovering phosphorus from sludge supporting their use to make fertiliser.  
  • Stop microplastics: Stricter thresholds for removing nutrients and micropollutants will be established with additional monitoring requirements for microplastics. 

Adding more substances to the list of surface and groundwater pollutants

The second attempt to address pollution at EU level proposes amendments to the Water Framework Directive, the Groundwater Directive and the Environmental Quality Standards Directive. Once more, the overarching goal is to set new standards for substances of concern and address chemical pollution in water, and to facilitate enforcement based on a simplified and more coherent legal framework. The current legislation lists several polluting substances and groups of substances, as well as quality standards, or threshold values for each, that EU countries need to respect. So far, 53 substances have been included at EU level, mainly pesticides, industrial chemicals and metals for surface water, next to nitrates and active substances in pesticides for groundwater. However, this list of pollutants is incomplete as it omits some emerging substances with significant negative effects on the environment and human health, such as PFAS. At the same time, some of the listed substances are no longer present in significant quantities in the environment, and for others, the standards do not correspond to the latest evidence. In practice, the proposed rules will:  

  • Help reducing or removing several substances damaging health and the environment, such as PFAS, pesticides, glyphosate, BPA, antibiotics from ground waters and surface waters. Member States will be required to take measures to reduce the presence of these pollutants. In practice, they will need to broaden their monitoring programmes and take measures such as changing permitting rules for industry, organising separate collection of pharmaceuticals, setting rules for the application of pesticides by farmers and households, or cleaning sediments and soil to avoid water pollution; 
  • Make chemical monitoring data more easily available, accessible and re-usable
  • Member States will work on tools to monitor and develop a policy response to problematic substances, such as microplastics and antimicrobial genes; 
  • Ensure more dynamic and up-to-date information on water status.  

What does all of this mean for water policy moving forward.

The extensive revision and strengthening of pollution monitoring mechanisms confirm the increasing importance of water policy in the EU and more awareness of the risks certain pollutants pose to health and the environment. Both revisions underline, for example, the importance of microplastic pollution management and prevention as a cornerstone of the new water policy framework supporting the general EU effort to further regulate their emission. Another interesting aspect is the use of secondary legislation to implement key aspects of the revised list of surface and groundwater pollutants. In practice, this would lead to a significant decrease in the time needed to implement changes in the legislation but also a reduction of power for the European Parliament and Council in water regulation, as the two institutions will be only able to raise objections to the Commission’s text, but not to amend it.  

The European Commission’s zero pollution package is only the first step in the long and intricate EU legislative process, and the texts are far from being finalized. Decision makers at the European Parliament and Council will negotiate the UWWTD and the updated list of surface and groundwater pollutants during the next year(s), with the aim of adopting a final text by mid-2024. Several questions remain such as whether the current European Parliament will make it on time to adopt these texts before the end of its mandate in May 2024, and how the updated water policy will look like in times of zero-pollution goals. One thing is sure: water protection is the next main priority of decision makers all over the world. It’s time to get ready for this upcoming legislative tsunami! 

By Patricia Alonso, consultant at SEC Newgate EU.