Q&A: Complying with environmental legislation

Kevin Turnbull, partner at Muckle LLP, explains key environmental legislation with which businesses must comply

Surely environmental legislation doesn’t apply to small start-ups?

Environmental legislation applies to businesses of all sizes and not just to those dealing with such things as hazardous chemicals. Sectors such as food, leisure and hospitality, construction and agriculture are just a few that are subject to best-practice guidance and specific legislation. The penalties for non-compliance range from enforcement and prohibition notices through to hefty fines and imprisonment.

What are the business benefits to environmental legislation compliance?

Clearly, the priority is protecting the environment and this can mean businesses are somewhat inconvenienced by what can appear to be time-consuming and expensive red tape.  That said, much environmental legislation is concerned with improving efficiency and reducing waste, which can save a business a lot of money.

Also, if a business gets a bad reputation for its environmental record, this can be a PR disaster, while those with good records may find themselves preferred particularly when dealing with public sector clients and environmentally-conscious consumers.  

Which key environmental laws are likely to affect my business?

It varies massively depending on the work your business does. You might need a permit to use certain chemicals or materials, supported by an application outlining specific safety precautions that are in place to protect the environment. Many firms need to monitor their trade effluent and emissions output to ensure it falls within acceptable limits. 

Who enforces environmental legislation and what action can they take?

The Environment Agency. Its powers range from making informal recommendations of best practice through to forcing you to pay for works it commissions on your behalf. Where breaches of environmental law occur, Environment Agency officers have fairly wide discretion. They could give you a warning, caution or even prosecute, in which case your business can find itself in court facing the possibility of fines – the size of which are unlimited. Directors could also be found personally liable for any breaches.

What if one of my staff breaks environmental law?

Nowadays, the onus is on the business to employ systems that ensure staff comply with legislation. An act of omission by an employee is likely to have consequences for the business. In some circumstances, directors may even be found personally liable. The consequences can be drastic.

Should my business have an environmental policy?

Compliance with various environmental laws can be onerous and complicated if they are not planned and managed effectively. A clear environmental policy, in conjunction with a regularly reviewed and updated execution framework, designed in consultation with environmental law experts and routinely fed back to relevant staff, is the best way to achieve this. Having this in writing, supported by comprehensive records of when it is reviewed and how it is implemented, shows a commitment to environmental issues, and this could be extremely useful in persuading the Environment Agency that a prosecution is unwarranted, should the worst ever happen.

How do I dispose of hazardous waste legally?

Examples of hazardous waste include asbestos, pesticides and other chemicals, oils, paints and batteries. These cannot be disposed of as general waste. Businesses that produce more than 500kg of hazardous waste per year must register with the Environment Agency as a ‘hazardous waste producer’. They must maintain detailed records of what’s produced, how it is stored and when and where it was sent for disposal.

Depending on the material, for a fee, some local authorities can assist with disposal. In other circumstances, again for a fee, the Environment Agency will assist or recommend independent specialists. Often hazardous waste needs to be stored in landfill sites and waste acceptance criteria must be met.

What types of businesses need special environmental permits?

The Environmental Permitting Regulations came into force on 6 April 2008, combining Pollution Prevention and Control and Waste Management Licensing.  If your business operates a ‘regulated facility’ you need the relevant permit. Regulated facilities are broken down into the abstract categories of ‘installations’, ‘waste operations’ and ‘mobile plants’.  These in turn are, somewhat unhelpfully broken down into further, widely-drafted sub-categories under the Environmental Permitting Regulations. Depending on how your businesses operation fits within the regulations, you may find yourself needing a permit from the Environment Agency or your local authority.

Where can I find out more about environmental law?

A good starting point is the Environment Agency, which gives information in fairly broad terms. However, environmental law is particular and mistakes can have wide-ranging implications. Depending on the nature of your business' activities, specialist assistance might be required. You could ask your trade body, too, or speak to an environmental consultant.

Find further advice and resources on environmental regulations on the Law Donut.