Advancing towards zero wastewater pollution : where are we at in the EU legislation?


In line with the ambition of its Green Deal, the European Commission released a Zero Pollution Package on the 26th of October this year, proposing stronger rules on air and water quality. This is a crucial time to influence the policy-making process and ensure that the new measures implemented will guarantee the protection of the ocean and its users.  

Specifically, the package included two proposals focusing on water pollution: the revision of the Urban WasteWater Treatment Directive and the list of surface and groundwater pollutants under the Water Framework Directive 

As part of its Healthy Waters campaign, Surfrider Foundation has used its expertise in water quality to analyse these two proposals and provide initial conclusions. 

Our household wastewaters: a heavy source of pollution that directly impacts our health and our environment  

Urban Wastewater Treatment Plants intervene at the very end of the water cycle, right before wastewater is released into the environment. It is the last instrument to treat water pollution before it impacts our marine and aquatic environments as well as our own health. In 1991, the European Union introduced an ambitious Directive concerning urban wastewater treatment, the UWWTD. The Directive requires the collection, treatment and discharge of wastewater from urban and certain industrial sources in Europe.  

In 2019, the Commission proceeded to review the Directive and published an evaluation report which highlighted several flaws and missed opportunities.

Firstly, there are lingering gaps in the management of some sources of untreated wastewater loads. For recreational sites, failure in the (or absence of) treatment of wastewater remains the number one reason for poor water quality.  

Secondly, chemical pollution in its entirety is unaddressed by the Directive, with a high number of chemical pollutants falling outside its scope. This is all the more concerning given the substantial use of chemicals in our society and the concerns expressed by the scientific community regarding their presence everywhere in the environment. 

Finally, there is a rising number of biocarrier pollution cases being reported and thwarting the Directive’s key purpose to protect the environment. These plastic carriers are used during the biological treatment phase of wastewater and can be spilled into the environment due to a lack of monitoring and protective measures. Biocarriers end up polluting our marine environment, affecting biodiversity and habitats.  

With its initiative published in October, the Commission aims at resolving these shortcomings and improve the management of our wastewaters. Surfrider Foundation welcomes this proposal which has potential to address these issues by reducing the remaining sources of untreated wastewater as well as preventing the pollution of our water bodies from a wide range of pollutants, including biocarriers. However, we remain concerned that some of the changes proposed run the risk of becoming empty shells because of a lack of binding measures.

In partnership with the European Environmental Bureau and Health Care Without Harm, Surfrider has taken a closer look at the European Commission’s proposal to now review the Directive.   

Read our full analysis here 

Chemical pollution and the state of our water bodies: time to update the WFD’s priority substances 

The second proposal updates the lists of priority substances for surface and groundwater and their associated legal threshold values. These are used to monitor and assess chemical status under the Water Framework Directive, the EU’s main legal instrument to protect fresh and coastal waters.

As of today, less than 40% of our rivers, lakes, coastal and transitional waters are considered in good chemical status and land-based, upstream pollution is known to be one of the main threats to the protection of the aquatic and marine environment. This already alarming figure does not fully reflect to widespread impact of chemical pollution which is underestimated and underreported. It is high time that the lists of priority substances were updated. The current ones are out of date and not fully address the challenges posed by chemical pollution.

The initiative offers to add a range of crucial water pollutants such as PFAS, pesticides (e.g. glyphosate) and pharmaceuticals to the lists. However, the proposal largely falls short on tackling chemical mixtures and backtracks on some existing requirements.

Joining the European Environmental Bureau, PAN Europe and Health Care Without Harms, Surfrider shares its views on the updated list of pollutants. 

Read our full analysis here

These two initiatives have now gone into the hands of the European Parliament to be discussed and amended by the deputies in 2023. We will follow the developments closely and push for ambitious revisions to guarantee the protection of our rivers, lakes and Ocean as well as our own health.

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