Environmental legislation is the collection of laws and regulations that outline how we should interact with the environment. Such regulations aim to protect the environment by regulating pollution, the use of natural resources, waste and contaminated land. Much of the environmental legislation in England and Wales originates from EU law. This is applied and implemented through national legislation.
Legislation concerning environmental management has increased rapidly over recent years due to the rise in our understanding and awareness about our impact on the environment. All businesses must meet certain legal requirements in order to ensure that their activities comply with the relevant environmental laws. As well as having a legal obligation, it is also important for businesses to abide by these regulations in order to minimise the likelihood of causing harm to the environment.
Who enforces environmental legislation?
The responsibility for a much of environmental regulation lies with local authorities. This is particularly relevant for lower-risk businesses such as offices and shops. The Environment Act 1995 set up bodies such as the Environmental Agency (EA) in England and Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) in Scotland. These bodies are the main environmental regulators in the U.K. They take responsibility for process industry regulation, water quality and water resources, waste management, land contamination and radioactive substances. As part of the process industry regulation, the regulators oversee the distribution of environmental permits to high-risk businesses. These licences set conditions on their activities, ensuring that the potential for environmental harm is as reduced as much as possible.
Since the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008, bodies such as the EA have the authority to impose civil sanctions for a range of environmental offences, rather than prosecuting through the courts. Most cases of environmental liability (for example the unauthorised or harmful deposit of waste, illegal discharges to air, land and water) arise under criminal law. However, environmental liability can also arise under civil law, public or administrative law and company law.
The Environmental Protection Act 1990 (EPA): Due to the rise in environmental legislation, many of the EPA's parts have since been repealed. However, the regulations concerning waste and pollution provide a framework for much of the later legislation. The EPA also establishes legal responsibilities for pollution control for land, air and water and covers waste disposal and statutory nuisances, such as noise or smells. A statutory nuisance is any noise, smell, light or insect infestation that compromises the quality of life, health and wellbeing of people in the neighbourhood. Abatement notices are served by environmental health officers for the local authority if a complaint is made about a statutory nuisance. Fines of up to £20,000 may be issued if an organisation fails to comply with an abatement notice.
The Environmental Permitting Regime (EPR): The regulation and control of local air pollution was assigned to local authorities in the Clean Air Act 1993 (CAA). The EPR is one of the principal environmental regimes in the U.K. This combines the industrial pollution prevention and control (IPPC) regime and waste management licensing. The EPR impose controls and restrictions on the release of emissions such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from combustion plants.
Waste and packaging regulations: In England, the EA are responsible for regulating all waste activity. These operatives are managed and monitored under the EPR. The IPPC regime is used to regulate large landfills, waste incinerators and waste recovery installations. The Packaging and Packaging Waste European Directive 1994 set out requirements and targets to increase the recovery and recycling of packaging waste and to reduce the amount of packaging altogether. Businesses have a legal obligation to ensure that a proportion of the packaging they produce and sell is recovered and recycled. An example of how legislation led to a significant reduction in waste is the 'single-use plastic bag charging' regime. Carrier bag distribution fell by 32% between 2006 and 2012.
Hazardous Waste Regulation 2005: Hazardous waste is often defined as anything that contains substances or possesses properties that may make it harmful to human health or to the surrounding environment. Examples include: Fluorescent tubes, television sets, fridges, PC monitors and batteries. The Hazardous Waste Regulation 2005 states that recipients of hazardous waste must provide the EA with quarterly returns and list the consignments received. They are also obliged to record the location of the deposited waste. Hazardous waste must be properly packaged and labelled and cannot be mixed with other hazardous waste, non-hazardous waste or any other materials.
National Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (NERC): As well as the EA, Natural England are an environmental regulator that can impose civil sanctions for some environmental offences. They were employed by NERC to protect the environment and manage relevant legislation. They are responsible for intervening in cases where damage to land, water or biodiversity is severe. They monitor any activities that might fall within the scope of the regulations set out by The Environment Damage (Prevention and Remediation) Regulations 2009. They also take responsibility for issuing licences for activities potentially affecting protected species and take enforcement action for offences against protected animals. Alongside the Chemicals Regulation Directorate, Natural England regulate the impact of pesticides on the environment and issue notices requiring remedial action if they find pesticides in hazardous situations.
The Environmental Damage (Prevention and Remediation) Regulations (2015 for England and 2009 for Wales) (ED): The ED regulations concern the prevention and remediation of environmental harm, focussing on damage to habitats, species, surface water or groundwater, sites of special scientific interest and land. The local authority is the principal enforcement authority – however, certain types of offences are regulated by the Environment Agency.
Flood and Water Management Act 2010: There are many legal requirements and restrictions to protect water sources from contamination. These regulations vary with district, as some regions may have different requirements depending on the local authority.If a business discharges a pollutant that leads to the direct input of that pollutant into groundwater, they will need a permit first. An organisation might also need consent from the local water company before discharging anything else into a public sewer.
What has changed?
Since the recent changes in legislation, air, water and soil pollution has reduced significantly. Many challenges still prevail, however, and laws are constantly changing to accommodate evolving industries and recent research findings.
The EU have certain environmental objectives they hope to meet by 2050. These include a more focussed implementation of legislation as well as more efficient dissemination of information to the public. They pledge to equip those involved in implementing environment legislation at Union, national and local levels with the appropriate knowledge and tools. In order to improve the public's knowledge base, the EU have recommended the use of available online tools.
As well as the legal requirements, businesses should also understand environmental legislation for financial and ethical reasons. Fines for failing to comply with environmental regulations are costly, and penalties may even include a prison sentence. If a business becomes associated with environmental neglect, they risk reputational damage which may disrupt professional relationships and their brand image.