The Environment Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech and published on 15th October, is designed to safeguard standards of environmental protection post-Brexit. Its best known provision is the creation of the Office of Environmental Protection — a “watchdog with teeth” which will hold public bodies to account — but there are many other forward-looking measures, some of which will have a direct impact on business. Caroline Hand takes a look at some specific provisions.

Vision and purpose

Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers has high hopes for the Bill, which in the Government’s view “leads a green transformation that will help our country to thrive. It positions the UK as a world leader on improving air quality, environmental biodiversity, a more circular economy, and managing our precious water resources in a changing climate.

“Crucially, it also ensures that after Brexit, environmental ambition and accountability are placed more clearly than ever before at the heart of government, both now and in the future.” Since the Bill was published, the Prime Minister has pledged that “non-regression” measures will be introduced to ensure that environmental protections are not at risk post-Brexit.

Provisions relevant to business

The Bill will give statutory effect to several of the pledges in the Waste and Resources Strategy published in January 2019. According to Theresa Villiers, the Bill will “help people recycle more and take us further and faster to a genuinely circular economy".

Extended producer responsibility (EPR)

Manufacturers will become responsible for the full cost of disposing of the packaging waste they create. This will boost recycling and incentivise the design of reusable and recyclable packaging. The present packaging regulations set more limited recycling targets, which vary according to the type of material.

Schedule 6 to the Bill allows the Government to make regulations that require those involved in manufacturing, processing, distributing or supplying products or materials to meet, or contribute to, the disposal costs of those products. By the end of 2025, EPR could be extended beyond packaging to hard-to-recycle materials such as textiles, fishing gear, vehicle tyres, construction materials, and bulky waste such as mattresses, furniture and carpets.

Resource efficiency information

Future Regulations could require manufacturers to publish data on the resource efficiency of their products. This will help the Government to regulate the more environmentally-damaging products. Regulations may also introduce new labelling requirements so consumers can identify items that are more durable, reparable and recyclable. The labels would also provide disposal information.

Deposit return scheme and recycling

As promised in the Waste and Resources Strategy, the Government will introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks containers. As yet it has not been decided whether this will apply to all bottles and cans or just the smaller ones which are discarded “on the go’. This will have implications for the drinks manufacturers as well as for consumers.

Local authorities will be directed to collect a consistent set of materials for recycling from both businesses and households. This will end the situation whereby food and other wastes are recycled in some areas but not others.

Single use plastics

Businesses are likely to be paying more for single-use plastic items such as plastic cups and cutlery. The Bill allows for the introduction of new charges, similar to the successful plastic bag charge.

Electronic waste tracking

Businesses will need to be more fully aware of what is happening to all their waste, and where it is going once it leaves their site. A new mandatory system is planned to track all consignments of waste, including exports. This will aid the fight against waste crime and provide valuable data to the regulators. Two companies, Anthesis and Topolytics, have just been awarded up to £1 million by the Government to develop prototypes for this digital system.

Once the electronic system is up and running, those in the waste chain will be required to enter data on how waste is processed or treated, where waste has been sent and to whom waste has transferred. Failure to comply with the new regulations will be a criminal offence.

England already has a digital consignment note system, edoc, which enables waste tracking, but this is voluntary and has not been taken up by all of the waste industry.

Biodiversity net gain

This mandatory scheme will place a duty on construction businesses to ensure that biodiversity is enhanced, not damaged, by new housing (and other building) development. In practice this will entail the creation of wildlife habitats such as ponds, wildflower meadows and hedgehog highways. Developers must be able to demonstrate a quantifiable 10% improvement in biodiversity. For a detailed discussion of biodiversity net gain, see the article Biodiversity net gain: the new mandatory system.

No more “Dieselgates”

Motor manufacturers will be penalised if they are found cheating the emissions tests, as in the notorious Volkswagen “Dieselgate” scandal. Manufacturers and retailers could be obliged to recall offending vehicles or machinery, fix or destroy them and compensate owners.

Curbs on industrial pollution

Major emitters of pollutants could be required to take action to reduce their emissions in areas where air quality objectives are not being met. If local authorities prove ineffective in tackling polluters, further action may be taken by Government.

Water abstraction

To conserve water resources, the Environment Agency will be given a new power to revoke abstraction licences without giving compensation. This power will be used where there is a real risk to the environment, and will not apply until 2028.

Environmental protection

Other provisions in the Bill will help to create a cleaner environment for everyone, safeguard environmental protection after Brexit, and ensure that the UK moves towards its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)

The new OEP will scrutinise environmental policy and law, investigate complaints and, if necessary, take enforcement action. It will have the power to take businesses, public bodies and the Government to court over any breaches of environmental law. The OEP will also hold the government to account on its commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The OEP will be located in Bristol and employ up to 120 staff.

Legally binding targets

The Bill sets out a requirement for legally binding targets on air, water quality, biodiversity, and waste efficiency, including a specific target on fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Critics have commented that Bill does not commit to achieving the WHO target for PM2.5 of 10 micrograms per cubic metre by 2030 (the UK target has yet to be set).

Statutory Environmental Improvement Plans (SEIPs) would be drawn up to make sure that all the targets are achieved. However, critics have pointed out that the legal commitments set out in the SEIPs would not have to be enforced until the year 2037.

Air and water quality

The Bill contains various other measures relating to air and water quality. These include:

  • a ban on the acquisition and sale of solid fuel for use in a smoke control area

  • fixed penalty notices of up to £300 for the emission of dark smoke in a smoke control area

  • new powers for the Government to update the list of chemicals which pollute the aquatic environment and to set standards for them.

The Environment Bill can be downloaded at services.parliament.uk.

Last reviewed 29 October 2019