The Run4Life project poses major challenges at the legal and institutional levels. The innovations in the reuse of reclaimed water and the recovery of nutrients are fully in line with the circular economy strategy that the EU has been promoting in recent years: firstly, through a first action plan that has had its greatest development in the waste sector and, recently, through a second action plan that, within the European Green Deal, seeks to have a greater impact on the production and consumption phases of goods and materials.

However, the implementation of the necessary reforms to make the circular economy effective does not always advance with the desired speed and it is difficult to put into practice the ambitious proposals of these soft law documents [programmatic documents approved by official institutions which, without having binding force, set the regulatory guidelines that should govern future legal reforms]. The lack of adaptation of the regulatory framework or the rigidity of administrative procedures are elements that can make it difficult to implement such innovative solutions as those of the Run4Life project.

In this context, a legal analysis is needed about the specific regulatory and administrative instruments that can be used to implement water reuse and nutrient recovery systems on a small and medium scale, as well as the legal or administrative barriers that may prevent their success.



The first EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy pointed out that the reuse of water also contributes to nutrients recycling by substituting solid fertilizers. The plan announced that the Commission would take some measures to promote the reuse of treated wastewater, including legislation on minimum requirements for reused water. In accordance with the provisions of this soft law document, the EU Commission published a Proposal for a Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse in May 2018 and the Parliament and the Council recently adopted the final document on 25 May 2020.

The aim of this new rule [Regulation (EU) 2020/741 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 May 2020 on minimum requirements for water reuse] is to lay down minimum water quality requirements for the use of reclaimed water in agricultural irrigation, as well as monitoring obligations and risk management provisions. Table 1 shows the main elements of the regulation that are being studied in the framework of Run4Life.

At the state level, analysis of the legal framework in the various Member States shows a great deal of regulatory variety. Most States do not have a specific regulation on the re-use of waste water, while the regulatory frameworks of the six Member States that have regulated this issue are quite different from each other. Table 2 shows a list of the regulations that currently exist, which will be analysed to see to what extent they allow for innovative solutions such as those of the Run4Life project.



Focusing on the separation of nutrients from urban waste water, this is actually done only to meet the established legal requirements: phosphorus and nitrogen must be eliminated to comply with the legislation. However, nutrients recovery offers many other opportunities, linked to the principles of proximity, correction at source and circular economy. The Run4Life project is an excellent example of this.

In legal terms, it is notable that phosphate rock is on the EU Critical Raw Materials List since 2014 and white phosphorus since 2017. According to the Report on Critical Raw Materials and the Circular Economy (European Commission, 2018), the main application of phosphate rock is the production of fertilisers (86% of phosphate rock), while 90% of white phosphorus is used in the production of detergents and other chemicals. Similar data are provided by the Study on Data for a Raw Material System Analysis (BIO by Deloitte, 2015): 91% of the phosphate rock mined is used to produce mineral fertilisers and animal feed and food additives. In addition, a large percentage of phosphates used in fertilisers are lost to the environment due to dissipative use.

The political and legal pressure on phosphorus recovery from wastewater has been growing in recent years. The aim is to gradually close the phosphorus cycle and reduce internal dependence on phosphorus imports. This will save phosphorus resources and reduce soil contamination too. The Swiss and German governments have approved relevant measures in this regard, as it is shown in Table 3.

Concerning the use of nutrients as fertilisers, the Directive 91/676 on Nitrates and the Regulation 2003/2003 on Fertilisers are the applicable legislation at EU level. From 16 July 2022, the Fertilizing Products Regulation will come into force, providing a new harmonized framework. The implementation of this regulation should be complemented by the updating of standards, through the work of the European Committee for Standardization and the national standardisation agencies. All these aspects are part of the legal study of the Run4Life project.


On 2 December 2019, marking the beginning of the Run4Life General Assembly in Ghent, a Legal and Regulatory Framework Workshop was held. The workshop, organised by Run4Life partner USC, gave a plural overview on the legal implications of water reuse and nutrients recovery from wastewater. The speakers gave a rich perspective of the barriers and possible incentives of implementing water reuse and nutrient recovery, each from their own background. The workshop programme below lists the names and affiliations of the speakers, and includes downloads of a selection of the presentations. At the end of the workshop the participants visited the Nieuwe Dokken demonstration site.