Collection and treatment of wastewater has improved across the EU, says report

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Collection and treatment of wastewater has improved in Europe’s cities and towns, but there are different success levels between the European Union Member States, a new report reveals.

The European Commission recently published the 10th report on the implementation of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD), which is part of the Commission’s zero pollution efforts.

The report shows that compliance rates with EU wastewater collection and treatment rules are high and have increased compared to the previous reporting period, which helps prevent pollution of the environment.

While the trend remains positive, full compliance with the Directive has not yet been achieved.

According to the report, finance and planning remain the main challenges for the water service sector.

EU Commissioner for the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, Virginijus Sinkevičius, commented on the findings: “This report confirms that the collection and treatment of wastewater is improving all over the EU.

“The EU rules have played a crucial role in improving the quality of the rivers, lakes and seas on our continent, with a beneficial impact on European citizens’ health and quality of life.

“However, progress has not been even and in some EU Member States waste water infrastructure needs better planning and more financing.

“We will now do our utmost to drive innovation and new investments in environmental infrastructure everywhere in Europe.”

The report shows that 95% of wastewater in the EU is collected and 88% is biologically treated.

While the trend is positive, the report shows that there is still work to do – 1% of urban wastewater is still not collected and over 6% is not sufficiently well treated to meet secondary biological treatment standards.

The current level of investments in many Member States is too low to reach and maintain compliance with the Directive in the long term, with several EU towns or cities still needing to build or modernise their infrastructure for collecting waste water, as well as to put modern treatment plants in place.

A recently published OECD study provides the European Union with a clear picture of investment gaps.

The Commission will work with the relevant Member States to make the best use of the opportunities offered by the new Multiannual Financial Framework and the Recovery Plan for Europe by including water treatment and sanitation as a top priority.

The report covers over 23 500 EU towns and cities that fall under the scope of the Directive, where people and industry generate over 610 million population equivalents of wastewater every year.

This is around 490 million bath tubs of wastewater per day.

The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive requires Member States to ensure that their towns, cities and settlements properly collect and treat wastewater.

Untreated wastewater can be contaminated with harmful chemicals, bacteria and viruses and thus presents a risk to human health.

It also contains nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous which can damage freshwaters and the marine environment by promoting excessive growth of algae that chokes other life, a process known as eutrophication.

An evaluation of the Directive was published in 2019, which concluded that, overall, it is fit for purpose but there is room for improvement.

The Commission has launched an impact assessment to evaluate different policy options with the aim of modernising the Directive.

This includes, among others, finding ways to deal with contaminants of emerging concern such as pharmaceuticals and microplastics, and considering whether regular surveillance of wastewater can enhance the EU preparedness in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, or similar diseases.

This impact assessment will involve ‘a considerable amount of consultation’ with relevant stakeholders.