Making Wastewater Treatment Facilities in Europe More Efficient and Circular Can Help Meet Sustainability Goals
Most of Europe’s urban wastewater treatment facilities have adopted a simple, linear approach in their operation. However, with use of innovation and new techniques, these facilities can act as resource hubs providing reclaimed water, energy, nutrients and organic materials for reuse, recycling and recovery. This idea is expressed in the EEA report ‘Beyond water quality — Sewage treatment in a circular economy’ posted on July 5.
The report expresses belief in the fact that modernising wastewater treatment systems is a giant step towards achieving sustainability goals. Net zero waste ambitions for the European region are formulated in the European Green Deal of 2021. The report sets out policy considerations for the transition to sustainability under the European Green Deal, focusing on the opportunities to achieve zero pollution and circularity.
Challenges in Wastewater Treatment
Today’s wastewater treatment in Europe is far from being a pollution-free process. The treatment required to minimise pollution of water can lead to the production of greenhouse gases and contaminated sludges. This means that in exchange for clean water, other types of contaminants are produced, and they go on to pollute air and soils. Treatment plants are facing additional challenges such as storm water surges from extreme weather due to climate change. Another challenge is that with technological progress new pollutants appear in wastewater on a regular basis. Therefore, there are many more pollutants in urban waste water than were previously recognized under EU legislation. We have limited understanding of the risks to aquatic life presented by mixtures of non-extracted chemicals that flow into surface waters. This is why the entire wastewater treatment system in Europe requires modernisation and reformation.
Reviews and evaluations of key parts of relevant European legislation present the opportunity to modernise and improve coherence across the sector and help deliver on the ambitions of the European Green Deal. The framework for wastewater treatment is set in such acts as the Urban Waste Water Treatment and Sewage Sludge Directives.
The report presents an important observation. In order to raise the efficiency of wastewater treatment facilities, action is required in other related areas, such as waste disposal and energy production. In particular, efforts are needed to ensure more efficient water use and pollution control, to minimise both the volume of water to be treated and the level of contamination. This will reduce the net waste amount, optimise energy use, and introduce sustainability. The report authors are sure that complex action is key to achieving sustainable development goals, as well as the local ambitions set by the Green Pact.
The report mentions that wastewater treatment is not a “one-size-fits-all” process. Europe is very diverse in terms of geography, density of population, and industrial development. Contaminants differ from region to region, so every region requires an individual approach to wastewater treatment. The report urges to prioritise flexibility and adaptability in modernisation of the system. This will lead to decreased costs of reorganisation in the future, as well as to a dramatic increase in efficiency of wastewater treatment processes.
Another observation dwells on the importance of understanding of wastewater treatment on every level. It is every member of the society, and not just industry giants, who shares environmental responsibility on both regional and global levels. Achieving sustainability goals requires change not only in regulatory and institutional approaches, but also in how we as citizens appreciate our individual and collective responsibilities towards sewage management. Nature-based solutions, which provide benefits such as green space and flood alleviation — for example reed beds — can generate local support.