Urban wastewater is one of the main sources of water pollution if it is not collected and treated properly. The Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive currently in force is more than 30 years old.

In order to combat climate change, the EU have set a goal of achieving a pollution-free environment by 2050 and as such more stringent measures are required by member states. The Commission have presented a revision of the rules pertaining to treatment of Urban Wastewater and proposed several measures that will be progressively applied until 2040 (link to webpage containing proposal found here), including as follows.

  • Make the wastewater sector energy-neutral and move it towards climate neutrality by reducing energy use, using the larger surfaces of some wastewater treatments plants to produce solar/wind energy, encouraging water reuse and using sludge to produce biogas, which can substitute natural gas.
  • Make industry responsible for treating toxic micropollutants (“polluter pays” principle) that are released into the environment from the use of their products, especially harmful residues from the pharmaceutical and cosmetics sector.
  • Improve access to sanitation in public spaces and for the 2 million most vulnerable and marginalised people in the EU.
  • Require the monitoring of health parameters in wastewater in order to enhance the EU's preparedness against pandemics or other major public health threats, as is currently being done for COVID-19.

The new rules enlarge the scope of the current Directive (which applies to cities with over 2,000 inhabitants) to cover all cities with more than 1,000 inhabitants. The new rules will also cover rainwater and will require EU countries to establish integrated urban wastewater management plans in large cities (over 100,000 inhabitants initially, progressively moving on to cover smaller cities of 10,000 inhabitants, where needed). This will significantly reduce direct emissions of organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorus to water bodies, together with litter and microplastics captured by urban runoff. It also introduces better control of individual systems such as septic tanks, stricter standards for nutrients, and standards for micropollutants and will require the monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions and microplastics.

The revision introduces a binding energy neutrality target for the whole sector, at Member State level. This means that urban wastewater treatment plants will have to significantly reduce their energy consumption and produce energy through renewable sources (e.g. solar, wind and biogas production). This will be achieved through energy audits and by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. EU countries will also be required to track industrial pollution at the source to increase the possibilities of re-using sludge and treated wastewater, thus ensuring that valuable resources are not lost. The proposal also provides a mandate for the Commission to fix minimum recovery rates for phosphorus.

The new rules are expected to save the EU almost €3 billion per year, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the sector by 62.5% compared to 1990, decrease water pollution through reduction of more than 365,000 tonnes of organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorus and cut microplastics emissions by 9% through better storm water management.