Working towards zero pollution

Towards Zero Pollution for Air, Water and Soil

Author: Christine Borg Millo

Christine Borg Millo is an intern working for Ewropa. She has recently completed her Law degree and will graduate in 2022. In the next scholastic term, she will be reading for a Master of Advocacy.


The quality standards of air, water and soil in the EU have deteriorated drastically and only now is society truly becoming aware of their adverse consequences.

Air pollution mostly stems from the excessive use of land transportation and manufacturing industries. Water contamination has increased via sewage discharge and toxic chemicals (such as heavy metals and hydrocarbons) which seep through soils and groundwater systems, and end up in the natural environment. Due to intensified pollution standards, physical health conditions and diseases are on the rise, including a variety of respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular diseases. The impact of pollution on biodiversity is also evident; in fact, impacts of acidification[1] and eutrophication[2], damages to crops, forest yields and pollination, and harvest being more susceptible to disease and harsher weather conditions are all clear effects of pollution.

Beating pollution by ensuring that its levels are reduced to a zero-harm degree is the core aim of the EU Action Plan “Towards Zero Pollution for Air, Water and Soil” issued on the 12th of May 2021, and plays a key role in the European Green Deal climate-neutral Strategy. The goal of the European Commission is threefold: improving the quality of air, water and soil; and it has set out many targets to better the current situation. However, targets should be not only implemented on an international and national level – there are many individual actions one may carry out to reduce pollution.

The EU Action Plan explained  

The first target is to improve the air quality to reduce premature deaths which are linked to air pollution (because of fine particulate matter in the atmosphere and toxic gases), by 55%. Moreover, the air pollution which threatens EU ecosystems and biodiversity has to reduce by 25%. Thirdly, water quality progress must take place by reducing waste, plastic litter at sea and microplastics by 50% and 30% respectively. Reduction of waste generation and residual municipal waste must also be reduced by 50%. A final target also aims at decreasing transport noise by 30%; a form of pollution that many often disregard.

This particular Towards Zero Pollution Action Plan comprises four stages. Firstly is the prevention of pollution at-site. Following this is the remedying of negative consequences and monitoring the situation comprehensively. Lastly, results must be reported to essentially increase awareness of the gravity of the situation and to encourage change by all active stakeholders.  

The ambitions set by the Commission are endless and diverse; they aim to align EU air quality standards more closely with WHO recommendations, and to review the quality of water standards and EU waste laws, to ensure they implement the green circular economy principles. These are: eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials at their best value and regenerating nature; through the reducing, reusing, recycling and removal of resources.

It has emphasised the role of States to present a scoreboard of EU regions’ ‘green performance’ to promote zero pollution across all borders. The Commission has also aimed to reduce the EU’s external pollution footprint (meaning the reduction of harmful polluting effects in 3rd countries) and to foster zero pollution from production and consumption. Meanwhile, the restriction of other pollution emissions, and the restoration of current damages which impacted the EU remain core objectives.

On a local and Individual level

Personal recognition and efforts to comply with EU goals probably constitute the best opportunity to safeguard our own health and the environment that we depend on so much. It is certainly not sufficient to simply have legislation in place without introducing concrete plans locally, and ensuring that those plans are properly understood, and employed by everyone.

In Malta, the overall concept of conserving energy must be highlighted more, whether at home, work, school or other public and private areas. A walking and cycling revolution is needed, or at least, the better use of carpooling systems and public transport can be implemented more. Energy supplies must shift to sources of renewable energy, whilst the use of electricity (led by the burning of fossil fuels) should be kept to a minimal and necessary level. Appliances and buildings need to be more efficient and cattle or dairy farming and intake of these products must be cut down. In this way, waste generation would decrease too. Local garden initiatives and the planting of more trees will of course support a longer-term quality of air and replenish soil nutrients. The ‘finding an alternative’ rule can always be further employed by all; for instance; opting to use a reusable bag instead of plastic and paper bags when shopping.

The way forward

On the 26th of October 2022, the Commission proposed stronger rules on ambient air, surface and groundwater pollutants as well as rules on treating urban wastewater. Namely, the Commission suggested a revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directive[3] and a revision of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive.[4] It also submitted an updated list of water pollutants to be controlled in both surface and ground waters. This would all be in line with the recommendations provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on the matter of pollution.  

Conclusion – Think Green

The positive display of the EU’s incessant focus on the environment is extremely important. Whilst we are constantly being made aware of the damaging results that pollution is having on our everyday life, many are still in denial. We have rubbed enough salt in the wound, and the EU has clarified this. The EU is there to set goals, yet it is our responsibility to achieve them.

[1] This is the process by which pH levels in land, soil and water decrease due to the dissolution of CO2. This results in harming living marine and land organisms due to more acidity in their food chain

[2] This is the process by which water sources are overloaded with nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which results in the depletion of dissolved oxygen in the body of water; it is the latter which leads to macroalgal bloom (which is the excessive growth of algae), the decrease of water clarity, the growth of submerged vegetation and seaweed and the killing of marine organisms.

[3] Directive 2008/50/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 May 2008 on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe

[4] Council Directive 91/271/EEC of 21 May 1991 concerning urban waste-water treatment