06 March 2013
Does my business need to worry about environmental law?
Many small and even medium-sized businesses think that environmental legislation doesn't apply to them – that's it's designed for large businesses handling hazardous chemicals and producing tonnes of waste.
However, the law on waste and pollution affects all kinds of businesses, from tiny start-ups to corporate multinationals. Depending on your sector, there might also be extra rules to follow. Penalties for non-compliance can be severe.
Alex Zachary, corporate partner at Thames Valley law firm B P Collins LLP, provides a basic overview of the rules that might affect you.
What are the rules on disposing of waste?
Business waste must be suitably contained, treated properly and stored safely.
You must ensure that whoever carries out your waste disposal is legally permitted to do so – and does the job properly. Makers, sellers and distributors of electrical and electronic equipment in the European Union have to recycle their consumers' waste electrical and electronic goods.
If your business produces hazardous waste, you will need to register with the Environment Agency (in England and Wales) and follow strict rules when transporting it, including keeping thorough records.
What about pollution and emissions?
You must not cause a nuisance through noise, smoke, fumes, gases, dust, smells, light pollution or accumulating rubbish that could harm someone's health or annoy people living or working near to your business.
Firms intending to discharge a large quantity of trade effluent must seek permission from their water company. Emissions into the air also need to be checked by the local authority and Environment Agency.
You may need to apply for an Environmental Permit, and comply with its terms.
Rules for specific industries
Sectors including hospitality, construction, agriculture and food and drink manufacturing may have extra environmental rules to follow.
For example, construction projects worth more than £300K need a site waste management plan to show how they plan to handle, store and dispose of their waste.
There are also rules for any business handling chemicals and radioactive materials, and those working in energy production and waste management.
Basic practical tips can be found on the Environment Agency website. You should also take specialist advice to make sure your business is staying within the law.
Why should I worry about environmental rules?
The major reason, of course, is that it's the law. Your business can be held responsible for any environmental damage it causes, and there are no ceilings on potential fines.
Aside from this, it's well worth looking at your business' environmental impacts, as eco-friendly practices are increasingly important to consumers and business partners – including your supply chain.
Following best practice and having a written environmental policy could help you do better business, and avoid a costly PR disaster. Be sure to communicate it clearly to your staff so that everyone's aware of their responsibilities.
Monitoring the waste you produce could also highlight ways in which your business is being inefficient and could make savings – for example, by reusing or recycling waste, or by switching to less wasteful business processes or materials.
Advice and best practice on waste efficiency is available on the WRAP website.