New EU wastewater directive makes its way through Parliament, but at what cost?

The EU wants to roll out higher standards for wastewater treatment plants to improve wastewater quality.
The EU wants to roll out higher standards for wastewater treatment plants to improve wastewater quality. Copyright Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle
By Stefan Grobe
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The new law will mean greater investments in new technologies, as well as industries that contaminate wastewater having to pay-to-pollute.

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Industries across the European Union that pollute wastewater the most may have to pay to do so, under new rules that could come into force later this year.

The European Commission's proposals to update the bloc's 1991 Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive are currently making their way through the European Parliament, under which polluting sectors could be targeted, as the EU looks to deal with increased pollution levels and make use of improved technology in the field.

In general, the new directive provides stricter standards and obligations that European cities and towns will need to comply with.

Fresh EU funds will inevitably have to be pumped into the wastewater industry, but as far as the MEP in charge of the law, Nils Torvalds, is concerned, the new investments will be money well spent.

"The cost will be there either way," the Finnish lawmaker said in an interview. 

"If you don't do anything, you are going to have medical costs, you are going to have health costs, you are going to have premature deaths.

"So, the cost will be there in different ways. So, you have to choose: would you like to do it the nice way or the bad way?"

For the water industry, the directive is on the right track, as the new rules look to shift the sector towards a different mentality: turning wastewater treatment into a resource hub that produces energy like biogas or makes nitrogen and phosphorus for use in agriculture.

But this will all come at a cost. It is why Tania Pentcheva from Xylem Water Solutions Belgium says those industries which pollute more will need to pay for it.

"There will be strains on the public budgets," Pentcheva told Euronews.

"But we would need to see also the implementation of the extended producer responsibility scheme for those industries that scientifically are polluting wastewater, and they need to contribute to it."

Today, people use more cosmetics and medication than three decades ago - consequently, there is more chemical residue in our wastewater.

If the challenge of cleaning up that water is not met soon, pollution of both our rivers and oceans will only increase further.

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