Jorge García Ivars / 16 May 2024

Organic microcontaminants in wastewater: How to reduce their environmental impact?

Water is a public good, belonging to everyone and for everyone. The importance of water as an essential resource for the development and survival of living beings is beyond debate, making it an increasingly scarce and depleted resource, as well as unequally distributed, as can be seen in areas affected by water stress, which are significantly increasing in Spain. Thus, the demand for drinking water continues to rise, intrinsically linked to population growth, economic development, ecological degradation, and, of course, consumption patterns.

New regulations for more efficient treatment and control of wastewater streams

As one of the actions to address this issue, the revision of Directive 91/271/EEC on the treatment of urban wastewater (Amendments approved by the European Parliament on October 5, 2023, on the proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the treatment of urban wastewater (consolidated version) (COM(2022)0541 — C9-6363/2022 — 2022/0345(COD)) (europa.eu)) aims to introduce new standards for more efficient treatment and control of wastewater streams, thus moving closer to the objectives defined by the European Union for Zero Pollution. Therefore, it can be considered that this revision updates the Directive by expanding its scope and application, highlighting the involvement of the water cycle sector and wastewater treatment as significant actors in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and defining a timeframe for the sector to achieve energy neutrality.

Expansion of producer responsibility in wastewater treatment

This, in turn, would lead to an expansion of the producer responsibility regime, further involving these stakeholders in wastewater treatment, thereby encouraging a more equitable contribution to wastewater treatment from the most polluting sectors (both in terms of volume and pollutant load) to ensure high-quality treated water that is useful for restoring receiving environments or reusing such treated water (as indicated, for example, in EU Regulation 2020/741 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 May 2020 on minimum requirements for water reuse).

Among the various proposed modifications are:

  • Mandatory introduction of secondary (biological), tertiary (nitrogen and phosphorus removal), and quaternary (broad spectrum of microcontaminant removal) treatments.
  • Extending the “polluter pays” principle to require pharmaceutical and cosmetic producers (while not exempting other industries such as textiles or chemicals) to bear at least 80% of the costs associated with these additional treatments (as they are primarily aimed at contaminants generated in their industrial activity), allowing some flexibility in covering the remaining costs.
  • This also includes charges related to the costs of collection, management, and data verification on products introduced to the market.

Organic microcontaminants: a major environmental problem

Special attention must be paid to organic microcontaminants. These contaminants are primarily of synthetic origin and have been designed to improve our standards of human health and economic development. Examples of these microcontaminants include pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, surfactants/detergents, pesticides/pesticides/fungicides, disinfection byproducts, or chemical fertilizers, among others. These microcontaminants are clearly detected in the previously identified sectors, not only through direct measurement but also through indirect or surrogate parameters that clearly indicate their presence and, therefore, their control.

However, these compounds (and their metabolites) are not degraded in conventional wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) and are released into the environment in various ways, potentially being found in drinking water supplies, surface and groundwater, soils and sediments, and wastewater from various sources (industrial, agricultural, and domestic).

Studies have shown that they may even exhibit greater toxicity and reactivity upon discharge. Their occurrence in water matrices tends to occur at very low concentrations (around ng/L and, to a greater extent, μg/L or parts per billion, ppb), so the potential risk associated with their discharge and the possible interactions that may occur with living organisms pose a major environmental problem for national and international scientific communities, technological centers, public administrations, and regulatory agencies worldwide.

microcontaminants in wastewater

Innovative solutions to reduce the environmental impact of the cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and textile industries

In this regard, AINIA collaborates with companies in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and textile industries to implement innovative solutions aimed at reducing the environmental impact of their activities, especially in terms of energy, water, and overall environmental footprints. Various projected and executed actions in these sectors include:

  • Increasing the efficiency of production and cleaning processes through the introduction of well-established technologies (e.g., microencapsulation).
  • Digitalization of processes or the development of value-added compounds for the creation of new products.
  • Optimizing and improving cleanability in equipment, facilities, and processes.
  • Minimizing water consumption through recycling and internal water recirculation.
  • Implementing plans for the treatment, regeneration, and reuse of industrial water (internal to the company) in accordance with current legislation and recommendations included in sector-specific MTDs and BATs Guides.
  • Introducing comprehensive waste valorization for both liquid and solid waste through the concept of biorefinery/biofactory.

Jorge García Ivars (15 articles)

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Jorge García Ivars
Medio Ambiente

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