The new Waste Water Treatment Directive from the European Commission will improve the treatment of urban wastewater, protect the environment, and promote public health in the midst of the climate crisis.
The directive pushes for higher standards in wastewater treatment, at the same as upgrades to make sure that treatment plants become more environmentally sustainable.
Three out of five wastewater operators are public companies owned by public authorities, mainly municipalities. These are also the owners of most of the water and wastewater infrastructure, including treatment plants in Europe. Any policy in this arena, therefore, must take cities’ expertise on board.
In a new policy paper from Eurocities, local authorities welcome the new directive, which will align with the European Green Deal objectives and introduce extended producer responsibility, also known as the ‘polluter pays’ principle, to raise funds for combating pollutants.
Nonetheless, there are some issues with the proposal that cities’ on-the-ground insights can repair to ensure that the aim of clean and sustainable treatment can be achieved.
Will polluters pay?
One of the most important features of the directive is the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Big producers of contaminants that end up in the water, such as harmful chemicals or microplastics, must help to pay for those contaminants to be removed from the water.
Cities will need to make enormous investments to bring wastewater treatments up to the standard mandated by the new directive. These will be impossible to finance unless the directive includes an early deadline for putting in place extended producer responsibility.
— Eurocities (@EUROCITIES) March 17, 2023
A worrying facet of the directive for municipalities is a number of exemptions that have the potential to make extended producer responsibility more difficult to enforce and which could lead to loopholes that reduce the directive’s effectiveness. For example, companies whose products do not generate micro-pollutants after they are used up are exempt, regardless if they do so while they are in use.
In principle, cities strongly favour the removal of all exemptions. For any remaining, they want to see them enforced at the European level, rather than separately in each European country.
Clean energy for cleaning water
The new directive wants to see wastewater treatment plants upgraded to become energy neutral, using technology like solar panels to produce their own clean energy. Cities support this ambition but are aware of many real-world constraints that will have to be accommodated if this is to happen effectively.
For example, the physical features of the treatment plant, or existing plans to use the land around it make it difficult or impossible to produce renewable energy. There may simply not be a place for solar panels etc. to be mounted. In such cases, it would make sense for the directive to permit the required renewable energy to be generated at other locations and brought to the plant rather than having it all on site.
Big upgrades to plants may be delayed by cumbersome planning processes. To make sure that changes can be made on time, new streamlined planning and building permits will be necessary, as will appropriate funding.
A mere 1% of large cities only subject wastewater to primary treatment, meaning that more advanced treatments, such as ‘tertiary’ and ‘quaternary’, are the norm. The new rules will include more stringent requirements for these processes.
However, improving the quality of wastewater shouldn’t just be achieved through these intensive processes. It’s also important to address pollution at the source, as managing reductions in contamination is much less resource intensive at the beginning of the process than at the end.
Requirements for degrees of treatment and processes should also be more closely linked to output quality. The proposed requirements for quaternary treatment mean that almost all large plants in Europe will need to invest in upgrades. Therefore, successful Extended Producer Responsibility schemes should be in place before the investments are made to finance these developments, and deadlines should be adjusted accordingly.
Counting the cost
The total amount of investment needed to make all the changes mandated by this directive, along with the Drinking Water Directive, are enormous, standing at roughly €289 billion across the EU by 2030, according to the OECD.
The problem is the current budgets for European funding don’t take into account this massive financial need, so EU Cohesion Funds need to be made available to deal with this as soon as possible. Without them, utilities and local governments won’t have the funds to make the necessary investments and won’t be able to meet the proposed deadlines.
Giving cities the funding and flexibility they need will mean that they can use their expertise to make sure that all the ambitions of this new directive are made reality.