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25 June 2014

Baltic Sea focus of European research venture

In Sweden there are some 700,000 private sewage systems, and around the whole Baltic Sea there are considerably more. These contribute 15% of all phosphorus released into this inland sea. One research project in the BONUS programme involves evaluating which treatment technique works best and how discharges of phosphorus, nitrogen and other pollutants can be reduced.

In BONUS, a new research initiative, countries around the Baltic Sea and the EU are jointly using scientific findings and innovative solutions to contribute to sustainable development in the region. The programme is to fund research relating to the environment and development of society. For the period up to 2017, it has a budget of some EUR 100 million. Half of the money will come direct from the EU, while participating countries will provide the rest.

Mistra is one of the six Swedish funders of the programme. The others are the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas), the Swedish Research Council, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management and the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency. Mistra’s funding will primarily be spent on projects focusing on technological development and innovative solutions.

Mistra is currently funding four projects. One is Optitreat (‘Optimisation of small wastewater treatment facilities’), an international initiative involving Germany and Poland as well as Sweden. The purpose of this project is to investigate how well various technologies for private sewage systems remove substances causing eutrophication and household chemicals, and also whether there is a need to review regulations governing private systems.

‘Historically, the relevance of private sewage systems to the environment has been underestimated. But we’ve done calculations showing that they account for 15% of all anthropogenic phosphorus entering the Baltic Sea,’ says Heléne Ejhed, Assistant Director at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute and project coordinator for Optitreat.

Quest for effective treatment

During the project period, research teams in the three countries taking part will investigate the efficacy of treatment works available on the market. They will also study which parameters determine how well various substances are removed, and also whether systems optimised to remove certain substances more effectively are correspondingly inferior when it comes to other substances.

‘Previously,’ Ejhed explains, ‘treatment systems have been mainly designed to remove substances that cause eutrophication and spread infection. The focus has never been on bringing about effective removal when it comes to drugs and household chemicals.’

The project also includes studying the next major challenge: antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There, there are few studies as yet and therefore no one who knows whether they constitute a problem or how serious it may become.

‘We now see a clearly growing interest in the subject of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. More and more people have become aware that there may be a real problem in society, and that’s why we’re going to devote great efforts to seeing whether these bacteria can spread from private sewage systems.’

Good treatment techniques are not always sufficient. A treatment plant or disposal site must also be managed correctly, in order to function optimally. Researchers in Optitreat will therefore study how individual property owners’ management affects sewage treatment.

Mistra’s contribution: SEK 30m

It will take time before we see any concrete results from the newly started project. Having received three years’ funding, the researchers are expected to complete their work in 2017.

‘One of the things we’ve discovered so far,’ Ejhed says, ‘is that attitudes towards having a private sewage system vary from one country to another. For instance, the value of a property in Sweden rises if it becomes connected to a municipal wastewater system, while the impact on prices is exactly the opposite in Germany. There, it’s considered safe to have personal control over domestic water and sewage alike. Countries have different regulations, too.’

Mistra has allocated nearly SEK 30 million to support innovation projects in BONUS. To date, only a tenth of this sum has been spent.

‘It’s not good that we have so much left. But BONUS is based on all the countries joining in and making contributions. In practice, the country that contributes least is the one that determines how large a share of our grants will be put to use,’ says Thomas Nilsson, Mistra’s Programmes Director.

Other BONUS projects funded by Mistra are:

  • Swera — a project aimed at carrying out risk assessment for all the shipwrecks on the Baltic seabed.
  • Geooilwatch — a project aimed at developing warning systems to prevent disasters in the Baltic Sea.
  • Microalgae — a project for devising innovative solutions enabling microalgae to be used in aquaculture systems and biogas production.

Text: Per Westergård, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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