The European Commission has unveiled a package of proposals for the introduction of stricter EU-wide standards to protect air, surface and groundwater. The new standards will also affect the treatment of urban wastewater, by tightening the permitted levels of pollutants. The three-part package will first be examined by the European Parliament and the EU Council and, once adopted, will enter into force progressively with individual targets for 2030, 2040 and 2050.

The goal of the “Zero Pollution” Action Plan is to achieve a toxic-free world by 2050 through the reduction of air, water, and soil pollution to levels that are no longer deemed as hazardous to human health or the health of natural ecosystems.

In relation to soil pollution, at the end of 2021, the European Commission published an EU Soil Strategy for 2030, in coordination with other European Green Deal policies. It lays out a framework and specific steps for the preservation, restoration, and sustainable use of soils; a vision necessary to achieve healthy soils by 2050. This Strategy includes concrete actions by 2030, among which is a new Soil Health Law for the harmonisation of measures and a high level of environmental and health protection, which is to be introduced by 2023.

The revision of air quality legislation starts with provisional standards for 2030, which are closely aligned with guidelines set out by the World Health Organisation, and are required to achieve zero air pollution by 2050. Beginning with the revision of the Directive 2004/107, the proposal states that, according to scientific evidence, some substances, such as cadmium, are responsible for significant negative impacts on human health, due to their concentrations in ambient air and accumulation in soil and groundwater. Member States are requested to monitor the presence of such substances in ambient air, both in urban and rural areas, and to maintain their levels within the specified limits.

Regarding the second pillar of the 'zero pollution' package, the proposed revision of the list of pollutants in surface water and groundwater is set to include 24 substances with well-documented negative effects on the environment and human health. Standards will also be updated and tightened for 16 pollutants already covered by the standards, which include heavy metals and industrial chemicals. Four pollutants that are considered to no longer pose a threat at EU level will be removed from the list.

Finally, the European Commission has proposed a revision of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. Primary principles include making the sector energy neutral by 2040, and improving sludge quality to allow for more reuse. The obligation to recover nutrients from wastewater, new standards for micropollutants, additional requirements for microplastics, and systematic wastewater monitoring for various viruses, including Covid-19, will also be included in the new Directive. Manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, which are responsible for 92% of toxic micropollutants in wastewater, will be required to make a considerable contribution to the costs of removal. 

More information on the Zero Pollution action plan is available at