Joint press release by the Federal Environment Agency and Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and Leipzig University

Can a fourth waste water treatment stage be financed by the waste water charge?

Study answers 'yes', as a part of an overall strategy to reduce micropollutants in water

a waste water treatment plant in the city DresdenClick to enlarge
The waste water charge could help finance the upgrading of large waste water treatment plants.
Source: Stadtentwässerung Dresden GmbH

The waste water charge could be a viable way to help finance the upgrading of large waste water treatment plants to include a 'fourth treatment stage". A new study has determined that these facilities can reduce micropollutants – pharmaceuticals, for example – which are present in waterbodies. This finding fits well into an overall scheme which the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) is currently drafting to reduce contamination of water bodies. One possible measure in the scheme would include the further upgrading of waste water treatment plants. The new research project which scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and the Institute for Infrastructure and Resources Management of Leipzig University carried out on behalf of the Federal Environment Agency has shown that the waste water charge should be updated to support such a development. The guiding function of the waste water charge would need to be strengthened and the revenues should be used to financially support the upgrading of large-scale waste water treatment plants. The overall success of this "Leipzig Model" also depends on introducing waste water regulatory requirements in the Waste Water Ordinance for the treatment of micropollutants.

The concentrations of certain micropollutants such as pharmaceuticals in rivers, lakes and other surface waters are often undesirably high. In some cases they exceed statutory environmental quality standards. A package of measures must be implemented to achieve a reduction. These measures include restrictions on use and bans which are anchored in chemicals and product law, environmentally sound disposal, mitigation of air emissions, or additional end-of-pipe technologies for waste water treatment in large sewage treatment plants. There are many activities and considerations on this topic at both national and EU level. UBA is in the process of evaluating them and will draft a proposal for an overall strategy in this context.

The UBA sees an additional (a "fourth") waste water purification stage at class 5 municipal waste water treatment plants (which serve more than 100,000 people) as part of such a strategy. The new study investigated the potential contribution of the German waste water charge to finance the upgrading of selected class 5 municipal waste water treatment plants. The study's authors recommend that the waste water charge should be applied to subsidise the fourth treatment stage as this option proves to have the most favourable cost-benefit ratio. The study proposes subsidising 75% of the annual investment costs for a fourth treatment stage at class 5 treatment plants over a period of 15 years. The present study represents the first substantiated feasibility study for the financing of the fourth treatment stage in Germany.

The study's authors believe it is - in consideration of the polluter pays principle – appropriate to include large public waste water treatment plants in micropollutants reduction efforts. "There is a lot that speaks in favour of large-scale technical solutions for waste water treatment as the most economical option," explains Prof. Erik Gawel, economist at UFZ and director of the study. Limiting the measure to large-scale plants guarantees cost efficiency because they already have the capacity to treat and process about 50 percent of the total pollution load. In this way, "a few" plant operators would take highly effective measures on behalf of "many" polluters – industry, trade, agriculture or consumers – who will be called upon to co-finance the measure through the waste water charge.

"We estimate that funding of 75% of annual investment costs for the fourth treatment stage at all waste water treatment facilities above 100,000 population equivalents will require around 100-130 million euros per year for a period of 15 years", explained Prof. Robert Holländer of Leipzig University. This would fix about 35% of the current national revenue from the waste water charge (approx. €300 million per year) and prompt a corresponding increase.

The regulatory requirements for the elimination of micropollutants at large treatment facilities would have to be adapted in order for the Leipzig Model to succeed. German water legislation has the necessary instruments to do so through the Waste Water Ordinance," says Prof. Wolfgang Köck, chief legal expert at the UFZ.

UBA-President Maria Krautzberger explains: "More extensive measures are indispensable for the protection of water bodies. We must now resort to effective and efficient measures to reduce highly problematic micropollutant contamination of water, for example from pharmaceuticals, both effectively and lastingly. The fourth treatment stage is one possibility to achieve that objective. It would also strengthen Germany's leadership in this technology sector."


Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)
Prof. Dr. Erik Gawel, 0341/235-1940, erik [dot] gawel [at] ufz [dot] de,
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Köck, 0341/235-1232, wolfgang [dot] koeck [at] ufz [dot] de,

UFZ Press Office, Susanne Hufe, Tilo Arnhold
Tel.: 0341/235-1630, -1635

Leipzig University
Institute for Infrastructure and Resources Management
Prof.-Dr.-Ing. Robert Holländer
Tel.: 0341/97-33871
hollaender [at] wifa [dot] uni-leipzig [dot] de,

Martin Ittershagen, Head, "Press and Public Relations, Internet
Tel: 0340/2103-2122
martin [dot] ittershagen [at] uba [dot] de

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