Water Industry News

New EU Regulations Approved To Drive Wastewater Treatment

Earlier this month (April), members of the European Parliament approved new EU regulations for the collection, treatment and discharge of wastewater in urban centres, with the aim being to better protect both public health and the natural environment.


Councils still need to formally approve this agreement before it can be enforced, but if and when this takes place, the move will see urban wastewater undergoing secondary treatment to remove biodegradable organic matter before being discharged into the environment by 2035.


Furthermore, by 2039, tertiary treatment to remove nitrogen and phosphorus will be required for all treatment plants covering 150,000 population equivalent (p.e.) and above. By 2045, this will be the case for those plants covering 10,000 p.e. and above, and additional treatments to remove micropollutants will be mandatory.


Pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies would be wise to pay particular attention to the forthcoming legislation, as the new law will include extended producer responsibility for medicinal and cosmetic products for human use.


The aim here is to cover the costs of removing micropollutants from the water, with at least 80 per cent of said costs covered by producers, complemented by national financing.


In addition, public health parameters such as emerging pathogens and viruses, forever chemicals and chemical pollutants, antimicrobial resistance and microplastics will also be strictly monitored, and the reuse of treated wastewater from all urban treatment plants will be required by EU countries where appropriate, particularly in those areas facing water stress.


Zero pollution


The new legislation forms part of the EU’s zero pollution action plan for air, water and soil, which was adopted in May 2021.


The vision for 2050 is that pollution will be reduced to levels that are no longer harmful to human health and natural ecosystems and biodiversity, creating a toxic-free environment and respecting the planet’s boundaries.


Targets for 2030 include improving water quality through waste reduction, plastic litter at sea (by 50 per cent) and the release of microplastics into the environment by 30 per cent; improving air quality to drive down premature death rates caused by air pollution by 55 per cent; and improving soil quality by reducing chemical pesticide use and nutrient loss by 50 per cent.


This action plan hopes to strengthen the EU green, digital and economic leadership, while simultaneously making both Europe and the planet as a whole a healthier, socially fairer place. Further, it aims to provide a compass for mainstream pollution prevention across all relevant EU policies to drive legislation and identify possible gaps.


Commenting on the new urban wastewater treatment and reuse rules, rapporteur Nils Torvalds said: “The legislation will significantly improve water management and wastewater treatment standards in Europe, especially with new rules on removing micro-pollutants coming from medicines and personal care products.


“We are making sure that the impact of the rules on the affordability of medicines will not be disproportionate and that harmful chemicals such as PFAS will be monitored and better dealt with in the future.”


The implications for the pharma/cosmetics industry


Producers marketing cosmetics and pharmaceuticals in the European economic area will soon need to pay for wastewater treatment regardless of whether individual components included in their products were made in a member state or elsewhere, whether the products make it to market via digital platforms and whether they have a registered EU office.


Exemptions to the legislation apply if producers are able to prove that their products entering the EU market contain less than one tonne per year of the aforementioned substances, or if they can prove that the substances within products are rapidly biodegradable in wastewater and/or don’t release micropollutants at the end of the life cycle.


Manufacturers and producers will also need to comply with extended producer responsibility obligations by signing up to collective producer responsibility organisations (PROs).


They will also need to report on the annual quantities of products entering the market, including information relating to their hazardous nature, as well as paying a contribution to the PRO based on quantities and hazardousness of said products.


It’s expected that the new legislation will be formally adopted during the second quarter of 2024, with member states required to adopt national laws within 30 months (so within the first quarter of 2027).


Interestingly, this new move will serve to distance the EU even further from the UK in terms of environmental protection since Brexit.


Back in January, the Guardian reported that the UK’s scale of legislative changes means that environmental law is now being significantly rolled back, with divergences from EU law meaning that toxic chemicals banned in the EU will still be permissible on UK shores, greenhouse gas emission reductions will be slower, water quality will drop and consumer products will be more likely to contribute to deforestation around the world.


Where water quality in particular is concerned, UK government ministers have been planning to remove the EU’s water framework direction from legally binding targets, as well as working on plans to divert from the habitats directive, which protects habitats of rare wildlife. This would allow property developers to pollute nearby waterways without fear of retribution.


This latter point has been put on the back burner for now, according to the news source, but the government has intimated that it could return to the plans in the future.


Pesticide use in the EU has also recently come under fire, with some 30 harmful pesticides banned by the bloc, but not in the UK, which has ramifications for the nation’s waterways and soil.


Such pesticides are typically banned because of the harm they do to the natural environment, as well as local biodiversity such as insects, fish and other animals. Not banning these products means that farmers around the UK can continue to use them, despite the fact that they’ve been found to damage invertebrate and insect populations.


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