Environmental responsibilities

Your environmental impact is your legal responsibility. All businesses must recycle waste and some may need a permit or licence for activities.


6 min read

1. Overview

All businesses must comply with environmental legislation, and going beyond environmental compliance can also bring business benefits. Many businesses have realised that acting in a socially and environmentally responsible way is more than just a legal duty. It affects your bottom line and the long-term success of your business.

This guide outlines your main environmental responsibilities, including your obligations to recycle the waste your business produces. It also explains where you can find more detailed information and help on environmental issues.

2. Comply with environmental legislation

There are a range of environmental regulations your business may have to follow, including the need to:

  • Store waste safely and securely, make sure it is treated appropriately, ensure it is collected by an authorised organisation (such a licensed private waste contractor) and complete a waste transfer note or consignment note when waste is handed over.
  • Manage your business waste for recycling by separating paper, card, plastic, metals and glass prior to collection. Most food businesses also need to separate food waste for recycling.
  • Ensure you do not cause a statutory nuisance which could affect someone's health or annoy your neighbours. This covers things like producing noise, smoke, fumes, gases, dust, odour, light pollution or accumulating rubbish.
  • Do not let your business cause any pollution to enter the air, water or ground. Pollution prevention and Control (PPC) legislation lays out processes to control pollution from specified activities through inspections, permits and controlling emissions.
  • Ensure that you do not cause water pollution. Get permission from your water company before you allow trade effluent such as waste chemicals, detergents, cooling or cleaning water to enter the sewerage system.
  • Comply with legislation regarding emissions into the air.
  • Collect and report your packaging data if you supply or import packaging and handle more than 25 tonnes of packaging per year and have a turnover of more than £1. This is part of your Extended Producer Responsibility.
  • Make sure that you comply with restrictions on the storage and use of chemicals and hazardous substances. Ensure that any hazardous waste your business produces is correctly classified, described, and stored and is either disposed of or recovered at an appropriately authorised facility.
  • Notify the relevant enforcing authority and take steps to prevent the damage if your business activities pose an imminent threat to the environment. If your business activities cause actual environmental damage, you must take remedial action to repair the damage.

It is your responsibility to ensure your business complies with all of the environmental legislation that applies to you.

There are also specific environmental rules covering a wide range of businesses - from construction, farming, and electronics to textiles and chemicals manufacture. You can check what environmental legislation applies to your business on the NetRegs website.

3. Hazardous substances covered by environmental legislation

Specific environmental rules cover potentially dangerous substances. Every business needs to think about the risks to people or the environment posed by chemicals or substances classified as hazardous to health under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) and other legislation.

Hazardous substances are tightly regulated. They include:

  • chemicals
  • oil
  • ozone-depleting substances (ODS)
  • fumes, dusts, mists, and vapours
  • pesticides and biocides
  • hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment
  • solvents
  • gasses
  • germs
  • nanotechnologies
  • animal by-products
  • radioactive materials
  • lead
  • asbestos

You must consider the environmental risks for every hazardous substance you store, use, produce, or dispose of at work. You must ensure you control any potential risks and comply with legislation when storing goods and materials.

If you manufacture, use, import, or recover from waste materials any chemicals, you may have to comply with the UK Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) Regulations. All Scottish businesses manufacturing, recovering or importing any chemicals over 1 tonne per year into Scotland, England or Wales must ensure those chemicals have been registered.

If you manufacture, import or distribute electrical and electronic equipment, you must comply with the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations (RoHS). Under RoHS, businesses are prevented from placing products on the market with more than a certain amount of hazardous substances such as lead, mercury and cadmium.

If you work with or service equipment containing ODS or fluorinated gases - including air conditioning and refrigeration equipment - there are requirements that you must meet regarding:

  • containment including prevention and repair of leaks, checking for leakages and record keeping
  • recovery for the purpose of recycling, reclamation or destruction
  • training and certification

Regulated work includes the installation, maintenance, servicing, disposal, and dismantling of refrigerators, freezers, air-conditioning equipment and heat pumps and the decommissioning of fire protection equipment and extinguishers. See the F Gas Guidance for more information.

4. Waste and recycling

You must ensure that any waste you produce as a result of your business operations is stored safely and securely, treated appropriately and collected for disposal or recycling by an organisation authorised to do so (such as a licensed private waste contractor).

In addition, the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 require all businesses to separate the following forms of commercial waste for recycling:

  • paper
  • card
  • plastic
  • metals
  • glass

If your business processes, prepares or distributes food and produces over 5kg of food waste per week, you are also required to separate food waste (unless your business operates in a designated rural area).

You can find out more about your obligations under the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 on the NetRegs website.

5. Conservation and biodiversity issues for businesses

Biodiversity refers to all species of plants and animals, including any genetic variations within those species, and the complex ecosystems they live in.

The world is losing biodiversity at an ever-increasing rate as a result of human activity. All types of business should be aware of their responsibilities for conservation and protecting biodiversity.

If your business is near a protected area or priority habitat, you will be subject to tighter restrictions on the activities and development that you can undertake. This doesn't just apply to land-based industries such as forestry or farming, but to all offices, factories and other business activities based on or near these areas.

Protected areas include:

  • Local nature reserves - places with wildlife or geological features that are of special interest locally.
  • National scenic areas - areas of particular natural beauty in need of conservation.
  • National parks - tracts of the countryside that have been given protection for the conservation and enhancement of their special qualities.
  • National nature reserves - important areas of wildlife habitat.
  • Sites of special scientific interest - good examples of natural heritage of wildlife habitats, geological features and landforms.
  • Special areas of conservation - strictly protected sites for habitat types and species that are considered to be most in need of conservation at a European level.
  • Special protection areas - strictly protected sites classified for rare and vulnerable birds.
  • Wetlands
  • UNESCO biospheres - areas of terrestrial and coastal/marine ecosystems which are internationally recognised under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere programme.

You can find out if your business operates in or near a protected area on the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) website and view more information on the topic and view existing conservation and biodiversity legislation on NetRegs.

6. Prevent and remedy pollution incidents

Every year there are thousands of cases of damage to the environment. The Environmental Liability Regulations relate to the most serious cases, covering:

  • damage to species and habitats
  • damage to water
  • risks to human health from contamination of land

The regulations apply to both actual cases of damage and threats of imminent damage. If you are responsible - i.e. you are the 'operator' of the activity that causes or threatens the damage - you must take immediate action to prevent or remedy this.

Reporting an incident

You should call the SEPA Pollution Hotline on Tel 0800 80 70 60 to report incidents such as:

  • damage or danger to the natural environment
  • pollution to water or land
  • poaching or illegal fishing
  • fish in distress or dead fish
  • watercourse blocked by a vehicle or fallen tree causing risk of flooding
  • illegal dumping of special (hazardous) waste or large amounts of industrial waste
  • incidents at waste sites regulated by SEPA
  • illegal abstraction from watercourses
  • unusual drops in river flow
  • collapsed or badly damaged river or canal banks

You should report incidents such as gas leaks, burst water mains, or domestic odours, noise, waste or pest nuisances to your local authority or utility company.

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