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Should the UK add nutrient recovery to the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive?

Conference Day 1 – Tuesday 2nd July

Panel Discussion - Nutrient Recovery

The 1991 Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD) introduced requirements for collection, treatment and discharge of urban wastewater in agglomerations with a population equivalent of more than 2,000 – and specific nutrient removal requirements were mandated when discharging into ‘sensitive areas’.

The effectiveness and number of other attributes of the Directive were evaluated in 2019 and it was found to offer no incentive to recover (rather than remove) nutrients. This evaluation informed a 2022 proposal to update the UWWTD, and various changes were agreed in April 2024, including: extending the scope to smaller agglomerations, introducing energy neutrality for wastewater treatment plants, and requiring that plants serving larger population equivalents introduce quaternary treatment to remove a wide range of micropollutants. This latter aspect is to be funded largely by manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and personal care products under an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme.

What’s missing from the revised Directive is any universal obligation to introduce nutrient recovery, although minimum reuse and recycling rates for phosphorus (from urban wastewater and sludges) should follow in a later delegated act. No targets have yet been set. Is this a missed opportunity or a dodged bullet, and what does it mean for any future update to the equivalent UK legislation? Should recovery targets be mandated, or should nutrient recovery be left to market forces? If we believe that there is an on-going market failure when it comes to nutrient recovery, what could be done to address this?

The panel of experienced wastewater treatment practitioners will be grappling with these and related questions to explore how we might help transition the UK towards a more circular nutrient economy.

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