Essential guide to fulfilling your business' environmental obligations

Cupped hands decorated with environmental map

Every business has an impact on the environment - and legal obligations that it must fulfil. The requirements are relatively simple for businesses such as offices and shops. Businesses in sectors such as chemicals and agriculture need to do more to help control the potential environmental risks.

Meeting your obligations isn't just a legal requirement. It's worthwhile in itself, and helps minimise the likelihood of any environmental problems, costs and damage to your business.

Identify your key obligations


Air pollution

Water and land contamination

Specific requirements

1. Identify your key obligations

Assess the main environmental risks from your business activities

  • Typical concerns include use of water, raw materials and energy, producing pollution and emissions, and waste management. Industrial or agricultural businesses may also present specific risks, such as the use of hazardous materials or substances.
  • You can carry out a risk assessment as part of an overall review of your environmental impact.
  • Identifying the key risks is a good opportunity to go further than simply meeting your legal obligations. Look for ways in which improving your environmental performance can directly benefit your business - for example, by reducing energy costs.

Work with your regulator

Check whether you require an environmental permit

  • Businesses with a higher risk of causing environmental harm, such as manufacturers and intensive farmers, are likely to require an environmental permit from their regulator.
  • The permit sets conditions on your activities, aiming to ensure that you use the best available techniques to reduce environmental harm to acceptable levels.

Consider getting additional advice

  • You may need to employ an environmental consultant, particularly if you are in a high-risk industry and need specific guidance. You may have obligations that are not covered here.

Make sure you keep up to date

  • Even if you are using an adviser, ensure that someone in your business takes overall responsibility for legal compliance.

2. Waste

Minimise any packaging you use

  • You must only use packaging that meets environmental standards and can be recovered or reused.
  • If you have a turnover of more than £2 million and handle more than 50 tonnes of packaging a year, you must register with a compliance scheme or your environmental regulator, and recycle and recover specific amounts of the waste.
  • You must register for Plastic Packaging Tax if you expect to or have imported or manufactured 10 tonnes or more of finished plastic packaging components since 1 April 2022 (or expect to do so in the next 30 days).

Ensure you store waste appropriately

  • Store waste in suitable containers which are clearly labelled and ensure waste cannot escape and cause water and land contamination.
  • Store normal and hazardous waste separately. For example, fluorescent tubes are hazardous waste and should not go in the normal bin.

Dispose of waste properly

  • You must use a waste-disposal contractor that is authorised to treat and handle your kind of waste. The contractor must dispose of it at a site that has a permit for that kind of waste. Check that your waste-disposal contractor is registered and authorised as a waste carrier, broker or dealer.
  • Transfers of waste must be covered by a waste transfer note, and you must keep copies for your records.
  • Waste being sent to landfill must be treated to reduce its environmental impact - for example, by separating out the waste that can be recycled.
  • Your waste contractor can help and advise you.

Comply with extra controls on special kinds of waste

  • Hazardous waste includes material that presents particular environmental risks (eg batteries, computer monitors and solvents) or can harm health (eg asbestos).
  • If you produce hazardous waste, check with your environmental regulator whether you are required to register with them.
  • Hazardous waste may need special storage and must be disposed of separately.
  • Waste electrical and electronic equipment must also be separately stored and disposed of. You may be able to use a collection scheme provided by the manufacturer.

Comply with controls on burning waste

  • You may need a permit or exemption to allow you to burn waste. Contact your environmental regulator for advice.
  • You must comply with restrictions on air pollution and must avoid causing a nuisance.

3. Air pollution

Make sure you have any permits you need

  • Activities that produce significant air pollution are likely to require an environmental permit. Contact your environmental regulator.
  • You may also need an environmental permit if you burn waste.
  • Get approval from your local authority before installing a new boiler or furnace.

Ensure that you do not produce unnecessarily dirty smoke

  • You must not produce 'dark smoke' - for example, by burning inappropriate materials.
  • Any fuel oil you use must not exceed set limits on sulphur content.

You must not produce emissions that cause a nuisance to your neighbours

  • Potential problems include smoke, dust, smells and noise that prevent your neighbours using and enjoying their own property, or represent a threat to their health.
  • Transport to and from your business can be a concern (eg lorry noise and fumes).
  • Whether an emission qualifies as a 'statutory nuisance' depends on the circumstances. Emissions are more likely to be a nuisance in a residential neighbourhood.
  • If you are creating a statutory nuisance, your local authority can require you to deal with the problem. You could face prosecution if you fail to do so.

You must comply with any additional local controls

  • For example, in some local areas all smoke emissions are prohibited.
  • Your local authority can advise you.

4. Water and land contamination

You must have a consent to discharge any trade effluent into the sewers

  • Trade effluent includes any liquid waste other than clean water and ordinary domestic sewage.
  • Ordinary domestic effluent (ie water) can be discharged into ordinary sewerage drainage (unless you discharge excessive amounts).
  • You must have consent from the local water company before discharging anything else into a public sewer.
  • You must comply with any conditions included in the consent. For example, you may only be allowed to discharge certain forms of trade effluent.

You must have authorisation before discharging into surface waters or groundwater

  • If you dispose of either liquid or solid waste into a local lake or river for example, you must apply to your environmental regulator for authorisation first. Liquid waste is very tightly controlled and must be treated before disposal.

You must prevent accidental discharges of contaminated water

  • You must ensure that storage of potentially harmful substances such as oils and chemicals meets specific requirements. For example, you may need to have a secondary containment system to cope with leaks.
  • You must prevent accidental contamination of groundwater with harmful contaminants: for example, if rainwater running over your premises becomes contaminated with any pesticides you use.
  • Get advice from your environmental regulator or trade association.

You must clean up any land you contaminate

  • If you fail to do so, you may be served with a remediation notice requiring you to put things right. Continued failure may mean that the works are carried out anyway - at your expense.
  • You may be held responsible for contaminated land you own or occupy if whoever caused the contamination cannot be identified.

You must not use groundwater or surface water without a licence

  • You do not need a licence to use small quantities (less than 20 cubic metres per day).

5. Specific requirements

Get guidance on the key issues for your industry

Check requirements for environmentally hazardous substances you use or produce

Typical requirements include ensuring that the materials are properly stored, used and disposed of. You may need to take steps to avoid accidental contamination (eg by ensuring equipment is properly maintained). Specific materials to consider include:

  • ozone-depleting substances such as refrigerants
  • oils
  • pesticides and biocides
  • solvents
  • chemicals
  • end-of-life vehicles
  • waste electronic and electrical items
  • animal by-products
  • radioactive materials

There may be additional obligations for manufacturers and importers

  • Increasingly, manufacturers and importers have responsibilities for the potential environmental impact of their products.
  • There are set limits on the use of some environmentally harmful substances, such as heavy metals and solvents.
  • Under the REACH regulations, manufacturers and importers of hazardous substances typically need to ensure that information about the substances has been registered with the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

Check whether there are any other environmental obligations for your business

For example:

  • appliance manufacturers must provide energy efficiency labelling
  • producers or users of significant amounts of dangerous substances must notify the regulator, carry out a risk assessment and produce a major accident plan
  • most waste management businesses are required to register with their environmental regulator
  • businesses involved in the production or sale of electrical and electronic equipment must comply with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulations


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