The European Parliament has reached a provisional political agreement with the Council on the proposal by the European Commission to revise the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive.

This revised directive is supposed to substantially strengthen the protection of human health and the environment from harmful discharges of urban wastewater. It will also lead to cleaner rivers, lakes, groundwater and seas all around Europe.

Following the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the new law will ensure that the costs for this protection will be partially covered by the responsible industry, rather than by the water tariffs or the public budget. In addition, it will drive the wastewater sector towards energy and climate neutrality. It will also improve the management of storm water, which will become more and more important in view of increasing heavy rainfall events due to climate change.

With the new measures in place, more nutrients will be removed from urban wastewaters and new standards will be applied to micropollutants. The directive will now apply to a broader number of areas as it will also cover smaller agglomerations starting at 1,000 inhabitants

Reducing chemicals and pollutants in cleaned water

The new directive will require the removal of more nutrients and micropollutants from urban wastewater, particularly those coming from toxic pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. However, this will also apply to microplastics from (third generation) synthetic turf as well as synthetic turf field owners who use toxics to clean the carpet or to remove algae.

It will introduce systematic monitoring of microplastics in the inlets and outlets of urban wastewater treatment plants as well as in the sludge. Additional monitoring of ‘forever chemicals’ such as PFAS will improve existing knowledge on the dissemination of these chemicals through urban wastewaters.

The new directive will implement the ‘polluter pays’ principle for the first time in the water sector in a specific way: the most polluting industries, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, will be required to pay at least [80%] of the cost for micropollutant removal (known as quaternary treatment). This will limit the cost of the new requirements for citizens.

In addition, key health-related parameters will be regularly monitored in urban wastewaters, including anti-microbial resistance or SARS Covid in case of a pandemic.

The new measures take into account the changing climate conditions and set clear obligations for Member States to better deal with heavy rainfall events. The recent events in various Member States, such as Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium, have shown that the rainfall regime is changing drastically not only in summer times but also in winter, and urgent action has to be taken to ensure the adaptation of the urban wastewater sector to this new reality. For large cities, Member States will have to systematically develop integrated management plans to deal with storm waters. For smaller cities, they will have to do so when storm waters present a risk. In these plans, concrete management actions have to be set out with a prioritisation of nature-based solutions.

The Directive will contribute to the circular economy by improving the quality of sludge and treated wastewater, allowing for more reuse in agriculture and ensuring that valuable resources are not lost.

Next steps

The European Parliament and the Council will now formally have to adopt the new Directive before it can enter into force. It will then enter into force 20 days after its publication in the Official Journal of the EU. Member States will then need to start working on the implementation of the requirements and send first updated national implementation programmes in 2026.

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