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On water polluter responsibility

Bruno Tisserand, EurEau President

Opinion 21 January 2019

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Water operators have one goal: to keep water safe and clean.

European water operators spend millions of euros to remove contaminants from water resources to provide water supply. These pollutants can enter the water cycle through many means, and once there, can pose a risk to human and environmental health.

The cost of removing contaminants is passed on to the consumer when laws and common sense say that the polluters should pay. It’s not just the water operators who believe this; the EU established these principles in its underlying treaties – these treaties however are not fully implemented.

The Polluter Pays, Control at Source and the Precautionary Principles constitute the underlying philosophy behind key water legislation, such as the EU Water Framework Directive. If they were implemented, we would reduce the level of contaminants entering the water cycle. When these principles are not used, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) should be enforced to make the polluter pay.

If approved with its initial ambition level, the EU’s Single Use Plastics Directive will make a significant step towards reducing the amount of waste that can end up in the environment by combining control at source measures with awareness-raising, labelling
and extended producer responsibility schemes.

We have to look beyond this. The Single Use Plastics Directive looks at end-of-life products that end up in the environment through littering and other careless behaviour. However, public attention is shifting to micro- pollutants, such as pharmaceuticals and biocides, and microplastics released by diverse products during their life cycle. A new type of EPR is needed, looking at the full-life cycle of products and effectively retracing the responsible manufacturers.

Producers must assume responsibility for the products they design and place on the market. Fewer harmful substances released to the environment will also reduce the overall ex- posure of the population to chemicals and will be a strong driver for product innovation.

The water that drinking water operators extract should be clean and safe enough to be consumed with a minimum of intervention. The same goes for waste water operators: they should only have to remove pee, poo and paper and give water a minimum of treatment before returning it safely to the environment. If further action is necessary, it is clear: the polluter should pay for additional cleaning, and not the water consumer.

We need the correct implementation of EU law
to ensure that domestic consumers do not pay extra to keep our water safe and clean.

An effective source control approach makes the reuse of water and its nutrients, like nitro- gen and phosphorus from sewage sludge, possible because they fulfil appropriate quality criteria. Without this, the sustainability of the application of regulations like that on Water Reuse may be compromised because it will require additional costly treatment. EPR is a financial mechanism that will allow us to address those unsustainable extra costs to the originators of the pollution, implementing the Polluter Pays Principle. The EU needs to better coordinate its own regulations to achieve this; EurEau wants the European institutions to:

  • adopt a strategic approach to micropollutants, including biocides, pesticides and pharmaceuticals through making producers responsible for the products they make
  • consider the life-cycle approach to substances when legislating, including the authori- sation process for pesticides and medicinal products
  • use the REACH authorisation process more frequently, identifying additional substances of concern and using the authorisation and restriction processes on persistent, mobile and toxic substances
  • make the producer pay for damage to the environment or any measures taken down the supply chain to avoid the release of pollutants into the environment
  • use eco-design and ecolabel criteria more extensively to reduce harmful components from later leaching into the environment, and
  • raise awareness among citizens and encourage them to make more environmentally- conscious decisionsFewer harmful substances in our water cycle and the environment benefits everyone. We can make this happen with existing legislation to protect human and environmental health, but the EU needs to make the three basic environmental principles more explicit. Each revision of relevant EU legislation should ensure that regulations and directives make our legislation more effective.

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