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Wastewater Directive: a crucial update to protect the Ocean and our health

Every summer, a large portion of the French (and European) population heads to the French coasts to enjoy the benefits of the ocean.
The problem: while the water in which we choose to swim appears, at first glance, perfectly clear and limpid (which is not always the case), it is significantly polluted. Among the multiple sources of pollution identified, one has particularly caught our attention in recent months: urban wastewater.

Urban wastewater comprises sewage from households, certain industries, and urban runoff, directly reflecting our consumption habits. It carries, among other things, a multitude of pharmaceutical products, food additives, residues from cleaning products, and personal hygiene products, thus posing a risk of biological, bacteriological, or even chemical pollution, which current treatment plants are not always equipped to handle effectively.
If this pollution is not properly managed, it will end up being discharged into our environment, endangering aquatic and marine ecosystems, as well as our own health. In this context, the proper management of urban wastewater becomes essential for the preservation of the environment and human health: it is imperative that these waters are collected and treated appropriately to avoid being a source of environmental pollution.

The Need to Update the Urban Wastewater Directive

The adoption, in 1991, of the Urban Wastewater Directive (UWD) represents a crucial element in the regulation aimed at protecting the environment and public health against the adverse effects of discharges of contaminated urban waters. However, if it was once effective, it is now clear that this directive now presents numerous pitfalls and no longer effectively addresses the many challenges and sources of current pollution.

Faced with growing concerns about water pollution and its impact on the environment and human health, the European Commission decided, in 2019, to evaluate the effectiveness of the UWD and its ability to meet current needs and challenges.
This evaluation revealed that the directive had significantly reduced pollutant loads discharged into the environment, particularly in terms of bacteriological pollutants, when it was properly applied within EU member states. Unfortunately, although progress has been observed in wastewater treatment, many problems are still to be deplored.
Among them, non-compliance or poor treatment of the sources of pollution observed constitutes a real problem. In addition to these elements directly related to the transcription and compliance with the directive in EU countries, the emergence of new challenges such as climate change or the appearance of new contaminants raise new concerns about the effectiveness of this text.
It was therefore imperative that measures be taken to modernize and strengthen this directive to meet current water quality and environmental protection challenges.

Crucial Points to Review According to Our Experts

Facing this observation, the commission launched, in 2020, a call for contributions on the evaluation of the Directive followed by a public consultation for its revision. The ocean, and more specifically the bathing areas or recreational activities located near coastlines, are directly affected by poorly or uncollected wastewater (deteriorated or non-compliant sanitation infrastructure) or by overflows of stormwater and urban runoff. This is why Surfrider, already very involved in the theme of recreational water quality, seized the opportunity to contribute to this vast project, mobilize its community, and make its recommendations and requests to limit pollution resulting from wastewater as much as possible.

Because the directive has allowed significant progress in the treatment of municipal wastewater, there remain truly problematic points that are imperative to strengthen or integrate into the revision, especially since this will lead to the reference text on the subject for the coming decades:

1️⃣ The directive is now over 30 years old and not adapted to new concerns, such as the pollution of water bodies by emerging contaminants (pharmaceutical residues or microplastics from human consumption) and the incorrect disposal of waste.

2️⃣ The directive governs wastewater treatment plants among which many are no longer up to standard (compared to the 1991 text) or poorly (or not at all) equipped to manage and treat emerging pollutants, including chemical pollutants. However, the current text at no time obliges them to comply.

3️⃣ Sewer overflows and runoff from urban areas (paved) can be vectors of water pollution. These wastewaters carry plastics/microplastics and chemical residues (from tire dust, road marking materials, pesticides, industrial, cleaning, and chemical products) to the treatment plants, which may, depending on the incoming volume, become saturated and unable to treat the waters. Unfortunately, the increase in heavy precipitation, expected in the future and directly linked to climate change, will lead to more frequent overflows and thus more significant pollution of the ocean linked to these substances. Such incidents (overflows, etc.) are not sufficiently accounted for by the directive today.

4️⃣ The current directive does not regulate individual systems and other appropriate systems, which can substitute for centralized collection systems and pose problems if they are poorly managed and uncontrolled.

Some Disappointments and a Huge Victory

Following the public consultation it launched, the Commission published its proposal for the revision of the Directive at the end of 2022. The text was amended and reworked successively by the three European institutions until an agreement was reached between them after more than 2 years of work.

If the new version of the UWD, which finally reached consensus after the trialogue period, indeed incorporates many elements that we considered essential, the Surfrider teams are somewhat left wanting. It seems to us that this new version unfortunately lacks ambition and firmness. This is all the more regrettable as it is supposed to pave the way for the coming decades in terms of wastewater treatment.

Among the points that we find questionable include:

⌛ A certain laxity regarding the imposed schedule

The 1991 directive on wastewater management was revised to introduce stricter and clearer standards, focused on protecting human health and the environment. This new proposal implements enhanced requirements for the collection and treatment of urban waters while ensuring better access to sanitation. However, it presents a much more extended application schedule and several possibilities for derogation, which could lead to uneven implementation across the European Union and delayed effects in wastewater management.

🧪 The introduction of a new treatment stage to combat chemical pollutants

The revision of the UWD integrates an additional treatment stage, tertiary treatment, in large and some medium-sized treatment plants. This is one of the most innovative elements of this text. This stage aims to eliminate micropollutants and reduce harmful substances in the waters. The European Commission had initially proposed that this new treatment stage concern plants treating waters from more than 100,000 inhabitants as well as those from 10,000 inhabitants located in risk areas. However, after extensive discussions, the final decision requires this treatment for plants serving 150,000 inhabitants and more (thus raising the threshold by 50,000 inhabitants) and specifies that the implementation deadlines may be extended by 3 to 10 years. This decision is significant because chemical pollution is particularly high and problematic in large agglomerations. There was therefore an important stake in maintaining the original standard for all treatment plants serving more than 100,000 inhabitants.

☔ The integration of rainwater management: a measure awaited but still too weak

The text proposes integrated management plans to combat pollution caused by storm overflows and urban runoff, recognizing their negative impact. However, the objectives of these plans are described as “indicative and non-binding,” which risks making them ineffective. Moreover, the implementation deadlines have been extended from 3 to 5 years, thus sending contradictory messages about the urgency of combating stormwater overflows and pollution of aquatic and marine environments.

⚖️ The Weakening of the Polluter-Pays Principle

The introduction of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system, particularly targeting industrial sectors (pharmaceuticals and cosmetics), in the context of advanced treatment of micropollutants in wastewater, is a notable advance. Unfortunately, this system was partially weakened during the drafting phase of the text, now charging industries only 80% of the costs and leaving 20% to be covered by public authorities. This compromise sends a mixed message: while industries are recognized as responsible, they will not bear the full costs, thus forcing citizens to financially contribute to solving a problem primarily caused by these same industries. The current provisions also close the door to any expansion of the EPR to other sectors responsible for the emission of micropollutants into wastewater.

We warmly welcome today’s vote as the negotiated text presents undeniable improvements over a directive that is 30 years old. However, we cannot help but feel contradictory emotions, as the institutions had the opportunity to boldly raise the ambitions of the text and accelerate our progress towards the EU’s zero pollution goal. We regret that the current text misses several opportunities to meet our expectations, but we remain convinced that with solid implementation, we will achieve healthier waters across Europe.

Lucille Labayle, Water Quality and Health Mission Officer at Surfrider Foundation Europe

🎉 A Historic Advance in the Fight Against Pollution by Bio-media

If there is one victory we can rejoice in and even celebrate, it is the integration, in the new version of the directive, of a mention of pollution by bio-media. After many months of hard work by experts and lobbyists from Surfrider as well as our highly committed volunteer community, this has finally been recognized by the European institutions. Indeed, this is the first time an EU regulation uses specific terminology and provides a complete and precise definition of bio-media, marking a turning point in the management of pollution. The adopted text states that member states will now be legally required to establish a detailed database on all treatment plants using bio-media within their territory. Additionally, operators of these facilities are required to take surveillance and prevention measures, with necessary regulations and permits. Although they must notify only significant spills to the competent authorities, which may seem limited, this advancement remains significant in the fight against pollution by bio-media.

Surfrider is delighted that the Parliament has taken into account its requests and committed itself to the fight against pollution by bio-media. This source of pollution, known for its harmful effects on the marine ecosystem due to microplastic and chemical contamination, has finally received the attention it deserves. The revision of regulations to include this critical concern and promote mandatory preventive measures at treatment plants represents a significant step forward in reducing environmental losses, both chronic and acute.

We note the efforts made by European institutions to improve the text of the UWD. Some points represent significant advances in combating ocean pollution from wastewater, particularly the inclusion of bio-media. However, we regret that they stopped halfway, weakening many of the proposals initially formulated by the commission, multiplying the derogations and extending the implementation timelines. It seems that the proposed text is not yet fully adapted to the challenges we face in the coming decades. Despite some disappointments, the new wastewater directive remains an essential tool of the EU and a roadmap for combating pollution in our aquatic and marine environment.

Due to the rectification procedure, the final text of the directive is not expected to be formally approved and published in the Official Journal of the European Union until the autumn of this year. Surfrider Foundation and the BEE call on EU decision-makers to ensure a swift process and to make sure that the directive comes into effect as soon as possible to contribute to improving water quality across the EU.