Regulating for people, the environment and growth, 2020

This report is for England. Most of the data presented are for the calendar year 2020. Where information is only available by financial year, it is for April 2020 to March 2021.

1. Chief executive’s foreword

1.1 Regulating right: green growth and a blue planet not red tape

In the 1990s NYPD chief William Bratton took on a huge challenge: make the then crime-ridden New York the safest major city in the US. He achieved the daunting task which many thought impossible by breaking it down into a series of small acts: New York would be made safe “block by block, precinct by precinct, borough by borough”.

The same approach can be applied to tackling our most daunting challenge yet: the climate emergency. As the UK gets ready to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in a few weeks, one critical but often overlooked aspect is the role of regulation. This year’s Regulating for People, the Environment, and Growth 2020 report highlights how the Environment Agency is quietly moving the UK towards becoming a resilient net zero nation, one small step at a time.

We are driving down greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the very worst climate shocks. Since 2010 emissions from the sites the Environment Agency regulates have decreased by 50%. We are running the new UK Emissions Trading Scheme, which caps and reduces carbon emissions from industry, business and the public sector.

A changing climate poses greater risks to human health, and the Environment Agency is helping keep our air clean from the pollutants that threaten our health. In the last decade regulation has reduced poisonous nitrogen oxide by 69%, sulphur oxide by 86% and dangerous particulate matter, that affects the heart and lungs, by 47%.

Mitigation – reducing the extent of climate change by reducing our carbon output – is one half of the solution. The other is adaptation – ensuring that our communities, cities and economies are resilient to the shocks a changing climate will inevitably bring. The Environment Agency’s regulatory work is helping here too, for example by tackling the unsustainable abstraction of water so that we have enough for a future of drier and hotter summers.

So: regulation works. Done right, it creates a stable and safe environment for industries to work in. This promotes a strong economy; jobs; innovation; health; protects wildlife, water and the natural world; and supports the levelling up agenda by tackling the worst environments often in the poorest communities.

But it’s not all perfect: our report shows annual pollution incidents remain high; 86% of river water bodies have not reached good ecological status; and the scourge of waste crime continues with more than 400 illegal waste sites still active. The quality of our environment is not where we want it to be. New pressures are not just from climate change and population growth: public expectation rightly continues to rise off the back of previous gains. There is a lot more to do.

If we want to make regulation fit for the future, we can. Leaving the European Union gives us a chance to reset the dial on the outcomes we want and how to achieve them. The recovery from coronavirus (COVID-19) requires unleashing our economy and supporting innovation to stimulate sustainable growth and shared prosperity. The answer is regulation that is proportionate, risk-based and outcome focused; that is business friendly, as long as business does the right things; and which has the teeth necessary to tackle polluters who do not. Effective regulation also needs to be properly funded. The cardinal environmental principle is that the polluter should pay. And those who pose the greatest risk of pollution – farmers, water and sewage companies, waste businesses and so on – should pay the full cost of the regulation necessary to ensure that pollution doesn’t happen. Where that isn’t possible, and sometimes it isn’t, the government should make up the difference.

At the UN climate conference COP26 in Glasgow this November, all eyes will be on the new targets and ambitions world leaders bring to the table to protect our planet. But without robust regulation, these ambitions will not be realised. If we will the ends of climate action, we need to will the means to achieve them. Bill Bratton solved New York crime by good policing, support for law-abiding citizens and a tough approach to the criminals, taking back the city block by block. If we want to stop the surge of climate chaos, we need to empower regulators to regulate well, support all those businesses that do the right thing and go after those who don’t, one by one.

2020 was a year like no other: I am incredibly proud of the people in the Environment Agency, mostly unseen, who dealt with the unprecedented challenges brought by a global pandemic to regulate our industries in difficult and dangerous circumstances. This report highlights their huge achievements. With the right approach, the right regulation and the right resources, we have even greater potential to turn the climate crisis into an opportunity to create a better place.

Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency

2. Main facts 2020

2.1 Our approach to regulation

  • 2020 was a challenging year. The COVID-19 pandemic affected businesses, people, the environment and the work of the Environment Agency.
  • Throughout lockdown we continued to prioritise our regulation of the most hazardous industries, ensuring the environment remained protected and communities remained safe.
  • We developed new and innovative ways of working, putting in place temporary flexible arrangements to support our regulated customers in managing the impacts of the pandemic and continued to develop our use of digital technologies.
  • We processed around 90,000 transactions for businesses and individuals (exemptions, registrations, licences and permit applications). The majority of these (73,500) were waste exemptions registered online through our digital services.
  • Most of the industrial sites we regulate continue to be well run. Based on a 5-year moving average, the permit compliance rate has remained at 97% since 2013.
  • Over the last 5 years an average of around 400 sites each year have not complied with their permits. Of these, around 150 each year are persistent poor performers.
  • During the same 5 year period environmental groups, such as county wildlife and river trusts, have received over £13 million as a result of enforcement undertakings.

2.2 A nation resilient to climate change

  • Through changing, reviewing and revoking abstraction licences we removed the risk of the over-abstraction of more than 600 billion litres of water from the environment.
  • Since 2010 emissions of greenhouse gases from the sites we regulate under the Environmental Permitting Regulations have decreased by 50%.
  • Since 2010 methane emissions from the sites we regulate under the Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR) have decreased by 45%.
  • We delivered over 98% compliance in the 5 major energy efficiency and emissions trading schemes we administer. They cover over 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions from industry, business and the public sector.

2.3 Healthy air, land and water

  • Over the last 5 years we’ve recorded an average of around 500 serious pollution incidents each year. Despite a slight declining 5-year moving average trend, the number of annual incidents remains high.
  • More serious pollution incidents are caused by activities we do not regulate than by those we do. Our attendance at incidents is reducing as our funding to deal with them has been reduced. Resources are needed to fund this work because one day one could be catastrophic.
  • Since 2010 emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from the sites we regulate have decreased by 69%, sulphur oxides (SOx) by 86%, and small particulates (PM10) by 47%.
  • 86% of river water bodies have not reached good ecological status. This is due mainly to environmental impacts caused by agriculture and rural land management, the water industry, and urban and transport pressures.
  • Farming is one of the biggest obstacles to good ecological status and is responsible for about 40% of water body failures. It is one of the sectors that causes a large number of serious pollution incidents, it emits the most ammonia and is not subject to any progressive regulatory framework where costs are recovered.

2.4 Green growth and a sustainable future

  • We found 621 new illegal waste sites and stopped illegal waste activity at 722 sites. At the end of March 2021, 470 known illegal waste sites were still active.
  • We inspected 1,719 containers of waste which, combined with our regulatory intervention at waste sites, prevented the illegal export of more than 11,000 tonnes of unsuitable waste.
  • The total amount of waste produced by the facilities we permit has largely plateaued over the last ten years. Recovery rates have gradually increased over this time period to a high of 74%.

3. Introduction

Climate change, COVID-19 and EU Exit were headline topics in 2020. Our regulated customers, our regulatory operations and government were all affected in some way. As were the public and communities. These added to the usual challenges to the environment and sustainable business operations that our regulatory duties are there to protect and enhance. Throughout these difficult times our ambitions have remained to support regulated businesses, and create better places for people, wildlife and the environment. Alongside this we continued to work on our climate ambition to help create a net zero nation and one that is resilient to climate change.

In 2020 we launched our action plan, EA2025 creating a better place. It includes details on our purpose, priorities, culture and values as well as how we will help to deliver the government’s 25 year Environment Plan. It describes our 3 long term goals:

  • a nation resilient to climate change
  • healthy air, land and water
  • green growth and a sustainable future

These goals drive everything we do today, tomorrow and to 2025. They champion sustainable development, support our work to create better places and challenge us to tackle the climate emergency and deliver a green economic recovery for everyone. This allows us and our partners to chart a course towards a healthier, greener and more prosperous country in 2025.

Our regulation contributes to all these goals, as can the activities and actions of our regulated customers. By complying with their environmental obligations many of our regulated customers continue to play their part by:

  • reducing emissions of pollutants to air, land and water
  • improving resource efficiency
  • considering how their operations affect the environment and communities around their sites

Some regulated businesses are looking at what more they can do towards these points. They are also beginning to look at what they can contribute in adapting and building England’s resilience to climate change and get to net zero.

But there is more to do. Despite the progress made, the quality of our environment is not where we, our partners, or society wants it to be. And the pressures from climate change, population and public expectations are growing. Regulatory non-compliances, waste crime, illegal water abstractions and pollution incidents are still damaging the environment and affecting communities and legitimate businesses.

In most cases, our regulatory action results in companies bringing about the required improvements to halt pollution, noise or odour issues. But there are occasions when operators remain non-compliant, prolonging the impact on local residents and the environment. In these situations, we consider all possible regulatory options available to us to try to get a site brought back into compliance as soon as possible.

Some prolonged non-compliance is due to the behaviour of regulated businesses, some to us not having the right regulations or regulatory frameworks. For example, environmental regulations are not yet ready for climate change. They were not conceived to accommodate rapid environmental changes.

There are also areas where we lack the powers and resources to effectively tackle some issues. These have meant making some hard decisions, and having to cut or stop some of our activities while taking on additional duties given to us.

During 2020 there continued to be wider public recognition on the benefits of a healthy environment for recreation, health and wellbeing. People valued their time in urban green spaces, the countryside and at the coast. They may have noticed issues from sites near where they live, due to being at home more or exploring their local communities and environment.

The public reported 72% of serious pollution incidents in 2020, compared to 64% of incidents in the previous 2 years. We continued to respond to these incidents (which included odour and noise) throughout the restrictions.

Our regulatory work supports reductions in emissions to air, land and water, and reduced water abstraction. It is part of the solution needed to make significant, cost effective progress on addressing health challenges. Initial estimates suggest that the annual environmental benefits from our environment and flooding work are in the magnitude of £7 to £12 billion. [footnote 1]

This report focusses on the environmental performance of our regulated customers in 2020, covering compliance, pollution incidents, crime and emissions. It also covers our regulatory role, and the actions we took to support business and protect people and the environment from harm.

The data gathered in 2020 is not easily comparable to previous years. It is difficult to differentiate between the impacts of the pandemic on businesses and our regulatory activities, with any real changes in business compliance performance.

4. A challenging year

4.1 COVID-19’s effects on regulated businesses

The pandemic brought many challenges and uncertainties for our regulated customers, including:

  • facing issues that were out of their control such as reduced staff availability, differing customer demands such as changes to water usage and patterns, break downs in supply chains and having to stockpile wastes
  • remaining operational in this situation
  • making choices about priorities and changes to their operations alongside continuing to manage their environmental compliance responsibilities

4.2 COVID-19’s effects on regulatory work

We also were affected, with different parts of our business impacted in different ways. We had to make decisions about how to operate to maintain environmental protection while keeping our staff and those they interact with safe in the context of COVID-19. We focussed our regulatory duties on sites that posed the highest risks to people and the environment, attending serious pollution incidents and tackling waste crime throughout lockdowns and restrictions.

Most of our operations had to change in some way. Our people developed new ways of working and continued to prioritise support for our regulated customers. We continue to adjust to the ‘new normal’ as England’s businesses and communities also recover and adapt. For example, with less physical regulatory inspections other parts of our regulatory approach became more important such as gathering intelligence, analysing data and remotely assessing performance. Used together, our activities allowed us to continue to assess regulatory compliance.

Where appropriate, remote regulation techniques became essential tools. Remote audits allowed us to continue to meet our regulatory duties, as well as leading to savings in carbon emissions, time and costs. Our International Waste Shipments Team moved to an electronic transfer of the ‘notification application’ system within 2 weeks of the first lockdown, which also supported our digital by default goals.

What we did to help businesses

We helped ease the pressures on businesses where we could and provided support and consistency. We did our best to provide a good level of customer service. We tried to balance our service to business with our priorities in protecting people and the environment as well as looking after our own staff.

From the start of the first lockdown we communicated with our regulated customers and listened to their concerns about meeting their regulatory obligations during the pandemic. We published a document giving clarity on our regulatory response during coronavirus, Environment Agency regulatory response to coronavirus. We also released and updated statements about expectations relating to all our duties and of our customers, Coronavirus: Environment Agency update.

Where discussions with industry highlighted a need for some flexibility, we were able to produce a series of time-limited regulatory position statements (RPSs). The 24 RPSs produced allowed us to support our customers while maintaining sufficient environmental protection. The RPSs still required businesses to:

  • take all responsible steps to comply with regulatory requirements
  • meet the specific conditions of the RPS
  • minimise unavoidable non-compliances and their effects
  • put contingency plans into action
  • keep records
  • talk to our regulatory officers

Where requirements were met, we would not normally take enforcement action. But we were clear we would consider appropriate enforcement responses to any non-compliance during this time in line with our enforcement and sanctions policy.

4.3 COVID-19’s effects on people and communities

The pandemic affected every person and every community. COVID-19, and the national response to it, drastically changed how people live, work, travel, consume and socialise. Nature was acknowledged as both a coping and a healing mechanism and that shed a light on the depth of environmental inequalities across our communities and its impact on the economy and wellbeing.

We will use the lessons learnt from the pandemic on the interconnected nature of economic, natural and societal systems and their interdependence to inform our efforts to:

  • help create a nation resilient to climate change
  • support economic growth and the government’s levelling up agenda
  • improve the way we regulate to protect people, communities and the environment

5. Our approach to regulation

5.1 Engagement

To ensure we have the right evidence to support fair, proportionate and transparent decision making, we listen to our stakeholders and gather evidence in a number of ways. We interact with businesses at a variety of levels including via local officers, national services, and trade and sector meetings.

We also run public consultations. We carried out 5 national external consultations with stakeholders in 2020.

As a regulator we have a process that enables operators to ask for an internal review of a regulatory decision we’ve taken, independently to any statutory appeal right. We considered 4 such appeals from business against our regulatory decisions in 2020. After investigation none were upheld.

5.2 Regulating to support innovation

The climate emergency, drive to net zero and the circular economy require step changes in people’s activities. This is bringing new technologies or industries to the fore, such as small nuclear reactors, carbon capture and the hydrogen economy. Innovation is an important driver of economic growth.

Older or prescriptive legislation can limit the scope for innovation and new ways of working by not being outcome focussed or allowing any flexibility in implementation. We continue to work with government, partners and customers to support government regulatory reform that will accommodate new processes and products to support innovation while achieving the environmental outcomes we need.

A change in legislation can be slow while the speed of technological development or new evidence of environmental harm means action is needed quickly. We take an agile approach where there is flexibility in the regulations given to us. This sometimes allows us to take measures to allow businesses to operate while we support government to make legislative changes. We do this by taking a risk-based approach, ensuring environmental protections remain in place while not stifling business and innovation.

We can:

  • allow time limited trials and pilots for some research activities
  • grant some derogations from normal standards where specific criteria are met
  • adopt RPSs – for example we published 24 COVID-19 related RPSs and published 24 new or revised waste related RPSs in 2020
  • extend temporary RPSs
  • create low risk waste positions (LRWP)
  • provide early advice to nuclear reactor technology designers and assess designs generically prior to site specific permitting

For example, in 2020 we extended a temporary RPS allowing the incinerator bottom ash aggregate industry to continue to operate while we work with them to change regulatory requirements. This work saved business £100 million, as measured by the government’s Business Impact Target, gives continued environmental protection and allows the industry to operate. In 2020 we also continued our advisory work for government on advanced nuclear technologies

5.3 Digital services and technology

Part of improving customer service is about us using new technologies, creating and improving digital services and making data available. It makes sense for our staff, customers and for the environment. It can drive greater efficiencies, improve relationships with our customers, and will reduce our carbon footprint. Digital transformation has also helped us to continue to operate during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

We were able to reduce our direct carbon emissions as an organisation last year by 32%, mainly though new digital ways of working, which substantially reduced business travel and our building’s carbon emissions.

We are continuing to make our permitting activities as digital as possible. The uptake of applying for some permits through our ‘Apply for an environmental permit’ digital service has risen year by year. However, the lack of digital options for most applicants means that only 2% of all applications to the National Permitting Service are received in this way. Significant expansion is unlikely without additional funding support.

In 2020 our Regulatory Services Programme, leading on this digital reform, continued:

  • 99% of waste carrier registrations were digital in 2020
  • water resources digital abstraction returns continued to rise, from 50% in 2018, to 90% in 2019 and 95% in 2020
  • digital water abstraction returns have resulted in combined savings for businesses of around £275,000 per year and saved 11 km of paper (if the forms were laid end to end)
  • 54% of our applications for new, waste standard rules permits were applied for through our ‘Apply for an environmental permit’ digital portal

There is wider future potential for digital transformation, using modern technology to better target our regulatory effort on the ground. For example, our water resources staff are starting to use satellite imagery to determine the moisture content of fields and crops during drought so that we can see if and where water is being used in times of restriction. Water quality staff are using the same technology to look at crop cover and the risk of pollution from sediment run-off during periods of intensive rainfall.

New ways of working that have been developed and progressed during the pandemic also include operational teams making increased use of drones to remotely observe sites. Drones can provide images of very large, difficult to access or hostile sites. The imagery can also be used to show businesses the impact of their operations, influence them to move into compliance or change their practices. They can also provide evidence for enforcement action.

5.4 Permitting

Our permitting and licensing activities enable businesses to carry out their operations, while robust regulation provides the level playing field legitimate businesses need to prevent being undercut by irresponsible or illegal operators. In return, we expect businesses to take responsibility for their operations.

We take a risk-based approach to permitting and licensing. Lower hazard, simple activities can be either exempt from regulation or require a business to register with us. For complex permits for industrial activities or licenses where more detailed consideration is required, such as where we protect sustainable abstraction for all water users, stricter licence conditions or bespoke permits are issued.

The pandemic reduced the capacity of our permitting service and increased wait times for operators. We responded by adjusting resources to enable us to both prioritise the determination of the most critical activities associated with the pandemic and the UK’s green recovery, and improve our performance. We formed a Permitting Systems Improvement Programme to address systemic issues and improve delivery. We want our permitting service to best support our customers, industrial growth and green recovery.

We processed around 90,000 transactions for businesses and individuals in 2020. These include exemption registrations, licences, standard rules permits and bespoke permits. These vary in complexity and range from a customer making a simple on-line registration, to our staff carrying out a comprehensive assessment of the potential environmental impact of an activity. The majority of these (around 73,500) were exemptions registered on-line through our digital services.

Our National Permitting Service issues and deals with permits and licences for waste, water quality, water resources and industrial activities. In 2020, it:

  • processed 4,227 new applications
  • issued 4,734 variations
  • dealt with 887 surrenders
  • dealt with 856 transfers
  • registered 1679 mobile plant deployments

We also:

  • registered 73,817 waste exemptions
  • made 1,643 flood risk activity permit decisions
  • registered 1,227 flood risk activity exemptions

5.5 Permit compliance and operator performance

During the pandemic we were not able to do as many on-site regulatory visits. We continued to get out and about during lockdown to regulate high risk activities but relied much more on technology to conduct remote visits for low risk activities.

We conducted no-contact visits and vehicle-based observations to check on activities. Physical inspections are a key part of regulation, but it’s also about the things we do remotely to gather intelligence, analyse data and assess performance. Used together, these activities provide us with a rich picture from which we can assess regulatory compliance and support customers.

Most of the industrial sites we regulate under EPR are well run. Based on a 5-year moving average, the permit compliance rate has remained at 97% since 2013. Over the last 5 years an average of around 400 sites each year have not complied with their permits. Some of these can have a negative effect on local communities as well as the environment.

Three quarters of all industrial site EPR permits are for waste activities. The rate of non-compliance (permits in bands D, E or F) within the waste sector is just over 3%, based on the current 5 yearly average, compared to 1.5% in all the other sectors combined.

The number of persistently poorly managed industrial sites, which are those with permits in D, E or F bands for 2 or more consecutive years, has generally been decreasing over the past 5 years. The majority of these sites are consistently in the waste sector. There has been a slight increase in non-waste sector persistent poor performers over this time period, of which the main contributing sectors are food and drink, chemicals and metals.

Persistent poor performers: permits in compliance bands D, E or F for two consecutive years

Year Waste activities All other industry All sectors
2020 113 16 129
2019 131 19 150
2018 128 12 140
2017 135 9 144
2016 166 9 175
2015 203 10 213

Water and sewerage companies

We have published a report on the Environmental performance of the water and sewerage companies in 2020. This shows that 5 companies achieved the industry leading 4-star Environmental Performance Assessment (EPA) rating. However, we rated 2 companies as requiring improvement. Their performance has been consistently unacceptable throughout the 5-year EPA period. Overall sector performance is not good enough and there are opportunities for even the best performing companies to improve further.

Abstraction licences

During 2020, we checked over 1,700 abstraction licences and found 85% were compliant. The reasons for non-compliance were varied.

Most breaches were because licence holders did not keep accurate records of how much water they took, or they did not submit their record of abstracted quantities to us as required (133 licence breaches).

Some abstractors exceeded their licence volume limits (101 licence breaches), or abstracted water despite river levels falling below critical trigger thresholds (74 licence breaches).

Advice, guidance or warning letters were given for less significant breaches, with further investigations underway for the more significant non-compliances which may result in enforcement action being taken.

Reservoir regulation

Reservoirs in England are regulated by the Reservoirs Act 1975. This sets stringent conditions for their operation to ensure high levels of safety. They are designed and operated to ensure the likelihood of failure is incredibly low.

Responsibility for ensuring the safety of reservoirs lies with their operators. Our job, as the regulator, is to ensure they comply with the legal safety requirements. We assess compliance at all 2,097 large raised reservoirs in England and use a range of enforcement options to address non-compliance.

Between January 2019 and December 2020[footnote 2] we:

  • recorded 438 certificates after satisfactory completion of an inspection
  • recorded 152 certificates which contained measures to be taken in the interests of safety
  • recorded 149 certificates showing that measures to be taken in the interests of safety had been satisfactorily completed
  • served 57 enforcement notices at 22 reservoirs
  • issued 3 formal warnings to reservoir undertakers[footnote 3]

5.6 Enforcement action

We support operators that try to do the right thing, only issuing enforcement notices, and penalising them as a last resort. During the COVID-19 pandemic our teams continued to investigate environmental offending and prepare legal cases.

In 2020 we:[footnote 4]

  • brought 70 prosecution cases resulting in fines totalling £1.7 million
  • issued 6 formal cautions
  • issued 100 enforcement notices
  • accepted 80 enforcement undertakings totalling £3.1 million in donations to environmental groups

The number of cautions we issue has reduced significantly. This is because we have found them to be less effective than other mechanisms we can use.

Enforcement undertakings are used for some offences, where operators recognise they have breached the rules, there is less harm done, and the damage can be remedied, often by local partners. Over the past 5 years environmental groups, such as wildlife and river trusts, have received over £13 million as a result of enforcement undertakings.

Enforcement actions used for environmental offences in England, 2015 to 2020

Year Enforcement notices Prosecutions Cautions Enforcement undertakings
2020 100 70 6 80
2019 305 143 12 48
2018 263 157 34 52
2017 218 169 61 59
2016 249 206 66 30
2015 364 208 128 28

6. A nation resilient to climate change

Climate change is one of the greatest threats to people and the environment. It will have far-reaching effects on economies and societies, and major impacts on habitats and species. Climate change will exacerbate risks from regulated industries such as by increased pollution risks during heavy rainfall. The physical and mental health impacts of a changing climate will mainly be felt through flooding, changes in water availability, temperature, disease and pollution.

Environmental regulation is also not yet ready for climate change. We are doing what we can with what we have, but the regulations were generally not conceived to accommodate rapid environmental change. More flexible approaches will be needed to ensure they can meet the increased risks from regulated industries and support the innovations needed to tackle the effects of climate change. More information on how the impacts of climate change will affect the Environment Agency’s work, and how we are preparing for those impacts, can be found in our third adaptation report, published in October 2021.

We are working across our remit to support a fair transition to a low carbon and resilient future. We have made good progress in mitigating the climate emergency through our regulation, such as driving down emissions of greenhouse gases from those we regulate. Our regulation is also encouraging climate change adaptation, for example by leading on the management of two of the biggest climate impacts – too much and too little water.

We are also enabling UK net zero by working with the government as it shapes the policy and investment necessary to put the UK on a path to becoming net zero by 2050. This includes looking at decarbonisation through developing Best Available Techniques (BAT) guidance.

We published our post-combustion carbon dioxide capture BAT guidance in July 2021. Our large scale hydrogen production from methane with carbon capture and storage guidance will be published in Autumn 2021.

We need these new technologies to be fit for the future when deployed at scale and operate within the environmental constraints a future climate brings. They must deliver for net zero ambitions but also protect people and wildlife.[footnote 5]

Our own aim is to become a net zero organisation by 2030, so that we no longer contribute to a changing climate, and achieve sustainable resource consumption and management. Our road map sets out our commitment to cut our carbon emissions by at least 45% and offset the rest. It breaks down the sources of our emissions and the tangible actions we will take to reduce them.

6.1 Adaptation in permitting

In December 2019, we introduced the requirement for climate change risk assessments for customers applying for new, bespoke waste or installations permits. This gives a structure for the formal consideration of current and future climate change risks, such as increased risk of flooding or reduced water availability. It is a 2-step process, with a series of screening questions, followed by a climate change risk assessment, which forms part of an environmental management plan. Those at highest risk can have additional conditions added to their permit that require a 4-yearly review of their adaptation assessment, or other bespoke requirements.

In the first 12 months since we introduced the requirement, climate change risk assessments were submitted for 8% of bespoke installations applications and 10% of waste applications. Just over half of those submitted contained responses indicating that some alternative thinking or design was adopted at the build stage as a result of having gone through the risk assessment process.

For example, increases in:

  • planned or built surface water drainage systems and attenuation facilities
  • on-site surface water storage to reduce flooding and provide additional water for dust suppression in drier summers
  • building ventilation and insulation to help maintain optimum temperatures during summer months
  • greater capacity at on-site effluent treatment plants and leachate lagoons to accommodate anticipated increased flows

6.2 Preventing accidents from major hazard industries

The Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Regulations aim to provide a high level of protection to people and the environment from major accidents. They apply where there are large inventories of dangerous substances (excluding nuclear and radiological hazards). We regulate COMAH establishments in England as a joint Competent Authority (CA) with either the Health and Safety Executive or the Office for Nuclear Regulation.

The regulations establish the requirements to assess and manage a wide range of hazards associated with flammable, toxic and environmentally dangerous substances. The wide-ranging risk control measures include those associated with natural hazards, such as extreme weather events.

Flooding has been identified as one of the most common natural hazards in England. Just over half of all COMAH establishments in England are located in or near to areas susceptible to flooding.

We have collaborated with CA partner organisations and industry to develop guidance on the measures that can be adopted to manage and reduce major accident risks due to flooding. During 2020 we continued to inspect COMAH establishments at risk of flooding to ensure they are taking all measures necessary to do this. It is encouraging that the sustained focus on flooding as a COMAH strategic topic is ensuring the likelihood and severity of major accident risks are being further reduced as operators adopt a range of measures. These include:

  • relocating hazardous substances out of flood risk areas
  • enhancing flood defences
  • making equipment resistant or resilient to flooding, including elevating it above flood levels
  • improving emergency response plans to ensure safe operations during or because of flooding
  • improving safe shut down and restart when severe weather and flood warnings are issued

While there have been several recent extreme flood events, which have threatened and disrupted operations at COMAH sites, operators have successfully controlled the risks and avoided any major accidents. Sharing this learning with all industrial sectors will ensure the benefits are not confined to this regime.

A new Chemical and Downstream Oil Industry Forum (CDOIF) working group has been established to examine all extreme weather threats to industry and how these may threaten safety. As well as flooding, the groups remit also includes threats such as lightning, storms, wildfire, and high and low temperature events.

The work is exploring the influence of climate change on these threats and aims to identify or produce good and best practice guidance on how to integrate the risk assessment of natural hazards into environmental, safety and business management systems. This collaborative work will ensure that changes in frequency and severity of extreme weather will be recognised and understood so that operators are able to use all measures necessary to reduce risks and protect people and the environment.

6.3 Greenhouse gas emissions

Emissions of greenhouse gases from the businesses we regulate under EPR and the Industrial Emissions Directive are 50% lower than in 2010. The emissions from these sites contribute 32% of greenhouse gases in England.

Greenhouse gas emissions, as global warming potential, to air from sites with permits (million tonnes CO2 equivalent)

Year Combustion (power) All other industry with permits Total emissions
2020 50 44 94
2019 57 49 106
2018 64 52 116
2017 66 52 118
2016 69 50 119
2015 89 58 147
2014 105 58 163
2013 124 57 180
2012 133 58 191
2011 122 55 177
2010 134 53 187

The decrease in these emissions has been driven by the continuing downward trend in emissions from power stations. This is largely due to coal and oil-fired combustion plants closing as they are unable to meet the tighter emissions standards set in the Industrial Emissions Directive, and more energy being generated from renewable sources, reducing the amount needed from fossil fuels

The Industrial decarbonisation strategy sets out the government’s vision for a prosperous, low carbon UK industrial sector in 2050, with the Energy white paper detailing the changes required to make the transition to clean energy by 2050. Decarbonising the energy system means replacing, as far as it is possible to do so, fossil fuels with low-carbon technologies such as renewables, nuclear technologies and hydrogen.

Renewable energy sources provided more electricity to UK homes and businesses than fossil fuels for the first time ever during July, August and September 2019.[footnote 6] During 2020 there were 180 coal power free days in the UK, compared to 83 in 2019 and 21 in 2018.[footnote 7]

Methane emissions

In 2020, the landfill sites we permit released 125,000 tonnes of methane to air. This accounts for 89% of all methane emissions reported from the sites we permit, and about 11% of total methane emissions in England.[footnote 8]

Methane emissions from the landfill sector have decreased by 46% since 2010 and by 12% between 2019 and 2020. This reduction in emissions is due to a combination of a drop in landfill gas production and improvements in landfill gas collection.

The drop in landfill gas production is largely due to the implementation of the Landfill Directive.[footnote 9] This diverted biodegradable waste away from landfill and led to a reduction in the number of operational sites. As these sites are closed and capped, collection of landfill gas improves. We have also focussed our regulatory effort on improving landfill gas collection and minimising emissions at operational landfill sites.

Methane emissions to air from sites with permits (thousand tonnes)

Year Landfill All other industry with permits Total emissions
2020 125 16 141
2019 143 20 162
2018 149 19 169
2017 170 19 188
2016 185 20 205
2015 194 24 218
2014 197 26 223
2013 231 27 258
2012 268 28 295
2011 250 31 281
2010 232 26 258

Farming contributes 41% of methane emissions in England.[footnote 10] The majority of this comes from livestock. Emissions from the intensive pig and poultry farming sites that we regulate contributes less than 1% of all methane emissions in England. Anaerobic digestion plants in the biowaste sector also release methane. We have built requirements into our permits for this sector to ensure that methane releases are minimised.

The global warming potential of methane is estimated to be around 25 times greater than carbon dioxide. Even small decreases in methane can have significant benefits in terms of its contribution to climate change.

6.4 Energy efficiency and emissions trading schemes

There are a number of energy efficiency and emissions trading schemes that we administer for the UK and regulate in England. At the heart of all these schemes is the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions with a particular focus on carbon emissions. These schemes cover the emission of over 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from industry, businesses and the public sector. This is over 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions.

We regulate more than 10,000 organisations in the UK and have successfully delivered compliance rates above 98% for the:

  • EU Emissions Trading Scheme for installations (until December 2020)
  • EU Emissions Trading Scheme for aviation (until December 2020)
  • Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation
  • Phase 1 Energy Saving Opportunity Scheme
  • Climate Change Agreements
  • Fluorinated Greenhouse Gases (F gas) and Ozone Depleting Substances

The UK Emissions Trading Scheme (UK ETS) and Fluorinated gases and Ozone Depleting Substances Regulation replaced UK participation in the European regulations and systems from January 2021.

During 2020 we supported the government’s EU Exit strategy and the transition to these schemes. We worked with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to shape and develop them, helping to draft the legislation and prepare for their implementation.

Before the end of 2020 we issued almost 700 UK ETS permits and 2000 climate change agreements, providing regulatory certainty for businesses and continuity of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

When necessary, we take enforcement action and issue civil penalties for a range of breaches covered by the schemes we administer. In 2020 we issued 36 civil penalties totalling over £850,000 and 69 opt-out target exceedance penalties.[footnote 11]

These regimes are important market instruments. Our robust regulation and shaping of future direction with government provides a platform for industry confidence and investment. The implementation of the regimes has been totally digital to reduce the administrative burden on our customers and to make it easier to comply with obligations.

In 2020 the climate change emissions trading and energy efficiency schemes that we manage collectively delivered:

  • 20 new permits
  • 481 variations
  • 173 voluntary and administrator-initiated terminations
  • 67 transfers
  • 4000 help desk queries
  • 9 million tonne reduction of CO2, compared to 2019 reported emissions (EU ETS)

6.5 New nuclear power and fusion power

The government is responsible for the UK’s energy policy and it set out its current position in the December 2020 white paper, Powering our Net Zero Future. The paper highlights the need to address climate change urgently and sets out its strategy for wider energy systems to achieve the UK’s target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. New nuclear power stations are an important part of the government’s strategy to help ensure that we have secure supplies of low carbon electricity in the future.

Nuclear power stations typically provide about 40% of our low carbon electricity. Almost 90% of this capacity is due to be retired by 2030. The construction of new nuclear power stations and development of new nuclear technologies, including fusion, form an important part of the government’s plans to tackle carbon emissions.

In 2020 we:

  • continued our regulation of the construction of the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C (capable of meeting 7% of the UK’s future electricity needs) and the determination of an application to vary its environmental permit for its water discharge activity
  • provided pre-application advice on environmental permitting and planning matters on proposals for the Sizewell C power station
  • consulted on three new environmental permits for the proposed Sizewell C power station
  • continued our Generic Design Assessment (GDA) of the General Nuclear System Ltd UK HPR-1000 reactor design which may be deployed in England – should this design progress to deployment, successful completion of the GDA will help avoid subsequent delay and cost risks arising from modifications during construction
  • continued engagement with the Bradwell Power Generation Company Limited to advise on developing their nuclear power station project to ensure proposals properly protect the environment
  • worked with BEIS to build our capability and enable the future development and potential deployment of advanced nuclear technologies. These include small modular reactors (SMRs) as well as other novel technologies including fusion
  • worked closely with the Office for Nuclear Regulation on matters of mutual interest related to GDA and permitting or licencing, and modernised our GDA process to introduce new flexibilities, including for mature technology small modular reactor designs

As part of our climate change adaption work, we, together with the Office for Nuclear Regulation, Natural Resources Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, have updated our joint guidance to nuclear developers and operators on the use of the latest climate change projections (UKCP18) in safety cases and planning applications.

6.6 Plentiful water

England’s water resources are coming under increasing pressure from population growth, economic development and climate change. If no action is taken between 2025 and 2050, around 3,400 million extra litres of water per day will be needed for public water supply to address future pressures. This includes 400 million litres per day to address the impact of climate change on water availability.[footnote 12]

Society expects water to be available for all water users, the public and businesses, while also sustaining the environment. This contributes to a growing sense of urgency that action is needed now to develop new national supply options to avoid restrictions in the near future.

In 2020 we launched a long-term plan for managing the risks to future water supplies, considering climate change adaptation. The National Framework for Water Resources, brings together industry, regulators and government to transform the way we use and look after our water supplies.

The framework marks a shift to strategic long-term regional planning to help:

  • reduce demand
  • halve leakage rates
  • develop new supplies
  • move water to where it’s needed
  • reduce the need for drought measures that can harm the environment

During 2020 we continued to work with and support the 5 regional water company planning groups in developing regional plans, which are expected to set out the approach to meeting the challenges laid out in the Framework. Draft plans will be consulted on in 2022. These plans will be reflected in the statutory water resources management plans submitted by water companies.

The Regulators’ Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development (RAPID) has been formed to help accelerate the development of new water infrastructure and analyse the feasibility of nationally strategic supply schemes. The joint team is made up of the 3 water regulators Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate. 18 schemes have been proposed so far which have the potential to help meet the water needs set out in the National Framework for England. This will help deliver what is proposed in regional and water company plans.

Water companies in England have a statutory duty to produce a water resources management plan (WRMP) and a water company drought plan every 5 years. We review these plans to ensure that companies can meet supplies in the future and during dry weather periods. We advise government on whether the plans are fit for purpose.

The latest drought plans have been published for consultation and the next WRMPs will be consulted on in autumn 2022. Both sets of plans will be steered by regional plans to ensure that companies are working closely together to provide the most sustainable supplies to the public and businesses while protecting the environment.

Each year as part of the Environmental Performance Assessment the water and sewerage companies are assessed using a Security of Supply Index metric. This highlights whether they have the ability to supply their customers in a dry year and forms part of the overall performance rating for the company. All companies also provide annual review information each June which shows whether they are meeting the targets and forecasts they have set in their WRMPs. The information allows us to scrutinise and ask questions where we believe there may be a threat to meet their statutory duty to supply their customers.

Sustainable abstraction

We lead on managing two of the biggest climate impacts –- too much and too little water. Adapting and working to get sustainable abstraction is vital to tackle these challenges.

Too much water is being abstracted, and this is damaging the environment. Our modelling suggests that around 700 million litres of water per day comes from unsustainable abstractions, and that these will need replacing by other means between 2025 and 2050.[footnote 13]

Of the water taken from freshwater sources, 51% is abstracted by water companies for public water supply and 38% is used by other industries. Current levels of abstraction are unsustainable in more than a quarter of groundwater bodies and up to one-fifth of surface waters, reducing water levels and damaging wildlife.

In 2020, the Restoring Sustainable Abstraction programme changed 28 abstraction licences, removing the risk of 13 billion litres of water being over-abstracted each year. In addition, through reviewing and revoking unused and underused licences in 2020, we revoked or reduced 26 licences where the risk of over-abstracting about 595 billion litres of water has been removed.

We have completed 4 priority catchments trialling new innovative approaches and collaborative working for water resources. The results were published in December 2020 in 4 updated, local abstraction licensing strategies.[footnote 14] We are progressing an additional 6 priority catchments in 2021.

We are carrying out a programme of work to bring into regulation previously exempt abstraction activities. This will improve our understanding of the water environment and ensure that the environment is protected, as well as the rights of existing abstractors and those we are bringing in. The application window for eligible abstractors closed in June 2020 and we are now determining those applications.

7. Healthy air, land and water

One of our aims is to protect and improve the environment for people and wildlife. We work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and others to achieve the government’s ambitions as set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan; leaving the environment in a better state than we find it. We want future generations to inherit a healthy, biodiverse natural environment that promotes their health and wellbeing.

As a regulator, our work can directly support healthier, safer, more equitable communities. People in the most affluent areas enjoy as much as 19 years more in good health than those in the most deprived.[footnote 15]

We work to try and ensure:

  • communities are safe from industrial accidents, protected and resilient to environmental hazards, pollution and natural threats
  • emissions from industries to the environment are reduced so that improved air quality means people can live longer healthier lives
  • people continue to access and enjoy the water environment, maximising health and wellbeing benefits
  • communities have clean and plentiful water for supply, businesses, and to support healthy and sustainable environments to live
  • waste is seen as a resource and it is managed in the right place, in the right way by the right people to minimise risk
  • people and the environment are protected from the radiation exposure that may result from the permitted discharge of radioactive waste

7.1 Reducing serious pollution incidents

Serious pollution incidents harm the environment and can have significant financial and reputational effects on a business. We categorise incidents from 1 (most serious) to 4, according to their effects on air, land and water.

In 2020 there were:

  • 61 category 1 incidents
  • 502 category 2 incidents
  • 11398 category 3 incidents
  • 4981 category 4 incidents

A category 1 incident has a serious, extensive or persistent impact on the environment, people or property. For example, serious pollution of rivers resulting in fish deaths, extensive damage to habitat, significant deterioration in air quality, or odour impacting human health. Category 2 incidents have a lesser, yet significant impact.

Category 3 and 4 incidents pose a much lower risk of harm than category 1 or 2. We take a risk-based approach and direct our limited resources to where they are needed most. While we respond to every incident we do not have the resources to physically attend all category 3 and 4 incidents. We do assess their causes and potential impacts and follow up our findings.

The number of serious pollution incidents (category 1 and 2) fluctuates year on year. Looking at 5 year moving averages helps to smooth out variations which may be due to external factors. For example, the number of agriculture and natural source incidents can be affected by particularly wet or dry years.

Over the last 5 years we’ve recorded an average of around 500 serious pollution incidents each year. Despite a slight declining 5-year moving average trend, the number of annual incidents remains high.

Limited and declining resources for incident response and prevention mean that it is unlikely that incident numbers will fall without further intervention.

Serious pollution incidents in England, 2015 to 2020

Year Serious pollution incidents per year 5-year moving average
2020 563 498
2019 467 485
2018 533 515
2017 419 546
2016 508 562
2015 499 570

The COVID-19 pandemic affected our on-site and field operational activities, disrupting our ability to be out detecting incidents. However, at the same time, with more people at home, and exploring their immediate local communities and environment, the potential for the public to notice and report incidents may have been greater. Conversely, there may also have been areas which were not visited by the public as frequently as usual, and so some incidents may have gone unreported.

The majority of all serious pollution incidents are usually reported by members of the public. In 2020, the public reported 408 (72%) of the 563 serious pollution incidents. This is a higher proportion, and far greater number than the annual average of 300 incidents for the previous 5 years.

To reduce serious pollution incidents, there has to be vigilance and action from all businesses, not just those we permit. Of the 563 incidents in 2020, 50% were caused by sites or activities that we do not regulate under an environmental permit, 34% by activities with permits and 16% by an unidentified source.

Serious pollution incidents in England by source, 2015 to 2020

Year Non-permitted activities Activities with permits Unidentified source
2020 279 193 91
2019 227 173 67
2018 286 197 50
2017 198 153 68
2016 296 145 67
2015 283 170 46

Of the 563 serious incidents in 2020:

  • 16% were caused by permitted or exempt waste management activities
  • 17% were attributed to illegal waste activities
  • 10% were caused by farming activities
  • 8% were caused by water and sewerage companies[footnote 16]
  • 8% were attributed to natural sources

Waste management

Waste management activities caused 91 serious pollution incidents in 2020.[footnote 17] There were 33 serious incidents caused by the landfill sector in 2020, a notable increase compared to the previous 5 years. Of these 33 landfill incidents, 32 were odour related (see odour section below). 28 of these incidents were caused by just 5 individual sites, with one site responsible for 12 incidents.

Serious pollution incidents caused by waste management activities, 2015 to 2020

Year Waste treatment Biowaste Landfill Other waste activities Total
2020 38 12 33 8 91
2019 33 16 11 10 70
2018 49 11 16 3 79
2017 42 15 7 1 65
2016 42 25 7 6 80
2015 57 46 14 3 120

Illegal waste activities

There were 96 serious incidents caused by illegal waste activities in 2020, compared with 79 incidents in 2019 and 81 incidents in 2018. Two-thirds were attributed to illegal waste sites.
The 2020 figure is the highest number of illegal waste serious pollution incidents since 2016, when there were 95 incidents.

Water and sewerage companies

In 2020, there were 44 serious pollution incidents caused by water and sewerage companies. This is a decrease compared to the 52 in 2019 and 56 in 2018.

More information can be found in our Environmental performance of the water and sewerage companies, 2020 report.

Farming activities

In 2020, farming activities caused 58 serious pollution incidents, compared with 42 in 2019 and 77 in 2018. Most (60%) were caused by containment and control failures.

Intensive pig and poultry farming, the only farming subsector we regulate under EPR, caused 8 serious incidents. These were all odour related.

The dairy sector caused 25 serious pollution incidents in 2020, 43% of all farming incidents. They all involved slurry or silage, with containment and control failures accounting for 18 of them.

The dairy industry is changing, with fewer registered dairy farms that each have bigger herds. Increased slurry storage capacity is a legal requirement set out in the Water Resources (Control of Pollution) (Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil) (England) Regulations.

Serious pollution incidents caused by dairy farming, 2015 to 2020

Year Serious incidents per year 5-year moving average of serious incidents
2020 25 31
2019 22 36
2018 29 39
2017 40 42
2016 41 42
2015 49 38

For the dairy sector, the 5-year moving average of incidents increased over the period 2014 to 2017. The trend has fallen since 2017 but this alone is not a sufficient signal of change to provide confidence of sustained improvement in the sector.


Odour incidents caused by industrial activities we regulate have increased since 2015.

Odour is a major cause of public complaints. Not only does it result in significant negative impacts on the quality of life in affected communities,[footnote 18] it also carries considerable reputational risk for the sectors involved. People in affected communities report increased levels of health issues, particularly anxiety and stress-related illness.[footnote 19]

Industrial sites can put controls in place to prevent odour, or where that is not possible, to minimise it to acceptable levels.

Most serious odour pollution incidents are reported to us by members of the public. In 2020 we received over 21,000 odour reports. From these reports, we identified 68 serious pollution incidents, of which 66 were at sites we regulate.

Serious pollution incidents involving odour and caused by activities with permits

Year Biowaste treatment Landfill Food and drink Agriculture Other sectors Total
2020 5 32 17 8 4 66
2019 11 8 18 3 10 50
2018 7 7 5 25 6 50
2017 6 7 11 11 2 37
2016 9 7 2 0 8 26
2015 16 5 0 1 12 34

A small number of sites cause a disproportionately large number of serious odour incidents. In 2020, 72% of serious odour incidents were caused by just 10 individual sites. Half of these 10 sites were landfill sites.

To reduce serious odour pollution incidents we have put in place training to up-skill our staff.

We are considering additional regulatory options to address the small number of landfill sites that are the source of a disproportionate number of odour reports. This includes ensuring sites only accept the waste they are permitted to and that all appropriate measures are taken to stop or minimise harmful emissions.


Long term exposure to environmental noise can have significant impacts on physical and mental health and wellbeing. In 2020, industrial sites we permit caused 31 serious noise pollution incidents. Over three quarters of these were caused by sites managing waste. Just 5 individual sites were responsible for almost three-quarters of these serious noise pollution incidents.

To reduce serious noise pollution incidents we have invested heavily in supplying noise training to staff. Our new guidance on noise and vibration management gives a clearer structure for what is expected in a noise impact assessment, and will help us make more effective regulatory decisions.

7.2 Cleaner air

Air quality in England has improved. Changes made at the sites we regulate have achieved significant reductions of SOx, NOx and PM10[footnote 20]. According to recent estimates, air quality regulation efforts result in annual health benefits worth roughly £850m, representing a reduction in annual life-years lost of about 23,000 life-years.[footnote 21].

However, air pollution continues to affect the environment and human health.

Air pollution is caused by natural sources and by people’s activities. This includes the combustion of fuels for heat and power, industrial processes and manufacturing, agriculture and transport. Air pollution can have short-term, immediate effects on health, such as wheezing and coughing, and can exacerbate pre-existing conditions. Long-term exposure to air pollutants in the UK shortens tens of thousands of lives every year and reduces average life expectancy by several months.[footnote 22] Particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide alone have been estimated to have health costs of around £22.6 billion every year.[footnote 23]

Environment Agency analysis has found that people who are exposed to the highest levels of NO2 and particulates are more likely to live in deprived areas of England.[footnote 24]

Air pollution also has negative effects on habitats, ecosystems, plants and animals. In 2018, 59% of the area of nitrogen sensitive habitat in the UK had more nitrogen deposition than it can cope with effectively.[footnote 25]

There are legally binding international targets to reduce emissions of 5 damaging air pollutants by 2020 and 2030. They apply to nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, fine particles, ammonia, and non-methane volatile organic compounds. The Clean Air Strategy[footnote 26] sets further goals and targets to reduce emissions from transport, the home, farming and industry, making air healthier to breathe, protecting nature and boosting the economy.

It is anticipated that the value of measures introduced in the Clean Air Strategy will cut the annual cost of air pollution to society by £5.3 billion by 2030.

Industrial emissions

We are working with government and the industries we regulate to implement the Clean Air Strategy and further reduce emissions to air. In particular we are looking for ways to address diffuse emissions of ammonia and small particles from our regulated sectors.

Our permit review work is fundamental to improving the environmental performance for many of the sites we regulate. This is a sector by sector approach whereby existing standards are regularly reviewed, and revised tighter standards are then introduced through permit variations, if required. We are currently implementing this approach for the large volume organic chemicals sector and preparing similar reviews for food and drink and energy from waste sectors.

NOx and SOx

Half of all NOx emissions in England come from transport and a further third come from energy industries and industrial combustion. Over half of SOx emissions in England come from energy industries and industrial combustion. Some 28% of SOx emissions in England in 2018 came from residential, commercial and public sector combustion.[footnote 27]

The businesses we regulate under EPR contribute 17% of all NOx emissions in England and 43% of SOx. Since 2010, NOx emissions from the industries we permit have dropped by 69%. Emissions of SOx have decreased by 86%.

NOx emissions to air from sites with permits, 2010 to 2020 (thousand tonnes)

Year Combustion (power) All other industry with permits Total
2020 30 44 73
2019 34 53 87
2018 46 55 101
2017 54 54 108
2016 53 56 109
2015 108 61 169
2014 142 57 199
2013 180 58 238
2012 200 60 260
2011 163 67 230
2010 175 58 233

SOx emissions to air from sites with permits, 2010 to 2020 (thousand tonnes)

Year Combustion (power) All other industry with permits Total
2020 7 22 29
2019 6 32 39
2018 16 35 51
2017 22 39 61
2016 22 37 60
2015 64 46 110
2014 91 52 142
2013 135 58 193
2012 189 68 257
2011 124 93 217
2010 123 78 202

Significant contributions to the emissions reductions achieved so far include:

  • coal and oil-fired combustion plants closing as they are unable to meet the tighter emissions standards set in the Industrial Emissions Directive, enacted through the Environmental Permitting Regulations
  • more energy being generated from renewable sources, reducing the amount needed from fossil fuels
  • application of BAT to improve process efficiency and remove pollutants from flue gases


The main sources of PM10 emissions in England in 2018 were industrial processes (33%) and residential, commercial and public sector combustion (28%). Transport contributed 13%.[footnote 28]

The businesses we regulate under the EPR contribute 9% of all PM10 emissions in England. Most of this comes from intensive pig and poultry farming. Since 2010, PM10 emissions from all the industries we permit have decreased by 47%. The amount of PM10 emitted from intensive farming has changed little over the past 10 years.

Small particulate matter is not a single pollutant. It is made up of a wide variety of chemical compounds and materials and classified according to size. The Clean Air Strategy proposes an ambitious, long-term target to reduce people’s exposure to PM2.5[footnote 29] as well as PM10. An estimated 5% of total mortality in England can be attributed to small particulate matter (PM2.5).[footnote 30]

PM10 emissions to air from sites with permits, 2010 to 2020 (thousand tonnes)

Year Combustion (power) Metals (ferrous) Intensive farming All other industry with permits Total
2020 0.7 0.4 6.0 1.1 8.2
2019 0.8 2.2 6.1 1.0 10.1
2018 1.0 2.6 6.4 1.8 11.9
2017 1.4 3.0 6.2 1.7 12.3
2016 1.5 3.3 6.2 1.6 12.5
2015 3.2 4.6 6.2 2.0 16.0
2014 4.2 4.9 6.0 1.8 16.9
2013 5.3 4.7 5.9 1.9 17.8
2012 6.6 3.7 5.6 2.2 18.2
2011 4.2 3.8 5.3 2.5 15.9
2010 4.0 3.6 5.6 2.2 15.4


Farming is the biggest contributor to this country’s total ammonia emissions. In 2018, 84% of all ammonia emissions in England were from farming (nearly half of which came from dairy and beef). 78% of this came from farms that do not need to hold a permit under EPR.[footnote 31]

The businesses that we regulate under EPR contribute 7% of all ammonia emissions in England. Most of this comes from intensive pig and poultry farming. There was a 7% reduction in ammonia emissions from intensive farming between 2019 and 2020 but there has been little change in these emissions since 2010.

Ammonia combines with other pollutants in the atmosphere to form secondary particulate matter. This particulate matter can be transported across large distances, with associated health effects on a wide population.[footnote 32] Ammonia can also cause significant long-term harm to sensitive habitats.

Ammonia emissions to air from sites with permits, 2010 to 2020 (thousand tonnes)

Year Intensive farming Chemicals All other industry with permits Total
2020 10.1 1.4 1.1 12.6
2019 10.9 1.8 1.2 13.9
2018 11.7 1.2 1.0 13.9
2017 11.0 1.7 1.0 13.7
2016 10.9 1.5 1.0 13.5
2015 10.7 1.1 1.2 13.0
2014 10.5 1.6 1.2 13.2
2013 10.3 2.1 1.1 13.6
2012 10.0 3.4 0.9 14.3
2011 9.9 3.6 1.1 14.6
2010 10.5 3.1 1.0 14.6

Non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs)

Solvent processes are the most important source of NMVOC emissions in England and accounted for nearly half of all NMVOC emissions in 2018.[footnote 33] These emissions come from both domestic and industrial solvent applications. Other sources of NMVOCs include fugitive emissions from fuels and emissions from agriculture.

The businesses we regulate under EPR contribute just 5% of all NMVOCs emissions in England. Emissions of NMVOCs from these sites have decreased by 36% since 2010. The refineries we regulate contribute 3% of the total NMVOC emissions in England[footnote 34] with other sites we regulate contributing a further 2%.

NMVOC emissions to air from sites with permits, 2010 to 2020 (thousand tonnes)

Year Chemicals Refineries and fuel All other industry Total emissions
2020 5.4 12.6 3.0 21.1
2019 5.9 13.9 3.8 23.6
2018 5.7 14.8 4.0 24.5
2017 5.3 20.0 6.1 31.3
2016 5.7 15.5 5.0 26.3
2015 5.5 16.3 4.7 26.5
2014 6.8 19.1 4.3 30.1
2013 6.5 17.2 4.5 28.1
2012 6.7 21.4 4.7 32.7
2011 7.3 17.6 9.3 34.2
2010 9.7 13.1 10.2 32.9

7.3 Cleaner land and water

Water provides people and wildlife with a wide range of services. Having good water quality, managed in a way that makes sure the country is more resilient to flood and drought, is essential. Our regulation and wider work contribute to ensuring good water quality standards for all, working in conjunction with the other water regulators, namely Ofwat and the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Land use activities, both rural and urban, can contribute to poor water quality via run-off and diffuse sources containing chemicals, nutrients, faecal matter and soils or sediments. Maintaining healthy soils can contribute to carbon storage and support sustainable food production.


Many rivers running through urban catchments used to foam and smell and were highly coloured. They were ecologically dead. Now these rivers support all kinds of life, which is a result of our action and £30 billion of investment from water companies using our evidence. However, they are still not as good as they should be and the impacts of climate change and population growth are impacting them. To create the rivers we all want, tough regulation needs to go hand in hand with water company investment and stewardship, improved farming practices and greater public awareness.

In 2019, the last year of assessment, 86% of river water bodies had not reached good ecological status. The main reasons for this were environmental impacts caused by agriculture and rural land management, the water industry, and urban and transport pressures.

Where pollution arises from point sources, such as water industry discharges, water quality improvements can and have been achieved. For example river phosphorus levels have reduced by four fifths since the mid-1990s due to improved waste water treatment and removal of phosphorus from detergents.

However diffuse pollution and the impacts of agricultural activities are not covered under permitting. In 2019 agriculture and rural land management continued to account for around 40% of water bodies not reaching good ecological status.[footnote 35] In 2020 we detected over 200 incidents of non-compliance with the Farming Rules for Water, but our ability to take action as a result is limited by a lack of resources. Where we have been able to apply our advice-led approach to regulation of agriculture it has resulted in positive environmental outcomes and substantial investment in farm infrastructure.

A cost recovery based regulatory framework for farm regulation would give us the additional resources needed to inspect farms. This would further help farmers understand their regulatory duties, resulting in improved water quality by reducing the frequency of both point and diffuse sources of pollution. This would also put farmers in a stronger position to benefit from future funding opportunities, such as the new Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMS). Regulatory compliance is often a baseline expectation for farmers being eligible for such funding.

No surface water bodies met the criteria for achieving good chemical status in 2019, compared to 97% passing in 2016. This significant change is due to the assessment of new substances, new standards, and improved techniques and methods. We assess 52 different chemical elements. The use of many of these substances has already been restricted in the UK, while others are used every day in the home, industry and in agriculture. The substances that caused the most failures in 2019 were:

  • brominated flame retardants used in electrics, foams and textiles
  • mercury from past industrial activity
  • perfluoroctanesulfonate (PFOS) used for its non-stick, water-repellent and oil-resistant characteristics, including in fire-fighting foams and textiles

The use of these 3 chemicals has already been restricted in the UK.

Only 45% of groundwater bodies achieved good chemical status in 2019. Groundwater is a vital part of England’s drinking water resources. They supply around a third of the country’s drinking water.[footnote 36] Nitrates are a major issue and can cause exceedance of drinking water quality standards. Nitrate enters groundwater from diffuse pollution on land (mainly water run-off from agricultural land) or is deposited onto land from the air. The government’s 25 Year Environment Plan’s ambition is for three quarters of waters to be close to their natural state.[footnote 37]

Drinking water protected areas

Drinking water protected areas are water bodies where water is, or can be, abstracted for people to drink. This could be from reservoirs, rivers, lakes or groundwater. The Water Framework Directive (still in force in the UK in 2020) requires drinking water sources to be protected and pollution controlled, to prevent deterioration in water quality, and over time to improve it.

Abstracted, or raw, water is treated before we drink it, and the treated water must meet the Drinking Water Directive standards.[footnote 38] Reducing pollution in drinking water protected areas is important because it ensures water remains fit to drink, and good water quality reduces the amount of treatment needed before it can go into the public supply system.

In England:

  • 221 of the 463 surface water Drinking Water Protected Areas (48%) are ‘at risk’ of deterioration[footnote 39]
  • 127 of the 271 groundwater Drinking Water Protected Areas (47%) are ‘at risk’ of deterioration and 71 are not meeting good chemical status[footnote 40].

The top pollutants are pesticides and nitrates from fertilisers. Through runoff into water, they are a risk to sources for abstraction and have wider environmental impacts. Their removal increases costs at water treatment works. Nitrate and pesticides not taken up by crops also have economic costs for farmers.

Working with water companies we identify Safeguard Zones around these protected areas. These are areas where land use practices are causing, or have caused, water quality to deteriorate.

In the next water company investment period 2020 to 2025, water companies will complete:

  • 29 measures to improve the water they abstract from the environment
  • 236 measures to prevent deterioration
  • 77 investigations into why water quality is deteriorating

Many of these actions are targeted at nitrates and pesticides and will help provide recommendations for further actions.

Storm overflows

Storm overflows are a necessary part of the current sewerage system. They are designed to discharge sewage to rivers or the sea at times of heavy rainfall or snow melt to prevent it backing up into homes and streets. Their use has increased in recent years as climate change has led to greater rainfall, and water infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth.

Our Event Duration Monitoring (EDM) data provides a robust and consistent way of monitoring how often and for how long storm overflows are used, and underpins our planning, compliance and enforcement work.

Working with water companies we have concluded a programme for water companies to install EDM monitors on over 80% of storm overflows. The permits we issue to water companies legally oblige them to monitor and report EDM data from their storm overflows. By the end of 2023, the remaining storm overflows will be monitored to provide a complete picture of the 15,000 permitted storm overflows in England.

We have used EDM monitoring evidence to drive £1.1 billion of water company investment, which will see 800 investigations and nearly 800 improvements to storm overflows over the next 4 years.

We want to see the end of damaging pollution that storm overflows cause. We are part of the Storm Overflows Taskforce that was set up in 2020. This brings together government, the water industry, regulators and environmental non-government organisations, with the agreed long-term goal of achieving this.

Bathing waters

Maintaining a high quality of bathing water benefits health and wellbeing as well as boosting local economies. There were 135 million day visits taken to the seaside in England in 2019, worth £4.4 billion to the economy.[footnote 41]

Due to lockdown restrictions, we had to pause sampling at bathing waters for much of the 2020 season to adhere with social distancing and to protect the safety of field, office and laboratory staff.

Limited sampling at most bathing waters did restart later in the season, but we did not have enough data to classify bathing waters in 2020. Monitoring and classifications resumed as normal in 2021.

Bathing water quality remained high in 2019 following the record results in 2016, which showed bathing waters were the cleanest since records began. From 2016 to 2019, 98% of bathing waters met or exceeded the minimum standard. In 2019 more than 70% achieved the excellent standard.

Bathing water quality is affected by a range of sources of faecal organisms. The most important are sewage related pollution, diffuse pollution from agriculture and urban diffuse pollution (including contamination from dogs and birds). Heavy rainfall has a significant short-term impact on water quality.

The data we collect as part of our sampling programme has been instrumental in driving huge investment and improvements in bathing water quality. Improvements have been largely due to enhancements in the sewerage infrastructure at, or near, a number of bathing waters.

Between 1990 and 2020, the water industry invested over £2.5 billion in bathing waters improvement work. Measures for protecting and improving bathing waters are set out in our Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP) which will see water companies invest up to £5 billion in the natural environment between 2020 and 2025.

In December 2020 Defra confirmed that from May 2021 a section of the River Wharfe at Ilkley in Yorkshire would be added to the list of bathing waters in England. This is the first stretch of river to be designated as a bathing water site. The new status means that we will regularly take samples from the river to measure bacteria levels. This data will help focus investments and interventions to improve the water quality.

Waste spread to land

We are the environmental regulator for the supply, treatment, storage and use of sludge through the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD), EPR, and The Sludge (Use in Agriculture) Regulations (SUiAR).

Our permitting service deals with over 1,600 deployments each year to deposit waste to land for agricultural benefit of future crops. Applicants must notify us before deployment. We deliver this work through dedicated teams who have built up specialist expertise and knowledge, providing consistent service to operators and giving the industry greater confidence in our decision making.

In 2020 we published our strategy for the Safe and Sustainable Use of Sludge. The strategy sets out how we will:

  • enable safe and sustainable sludge use on land
  • modernise and clarify the regulatory framework
  • develop a consistent approach with the water and waste industry
  • protect human health and the environment

Working with Defra and industry, we will develop the existing EPR framework to provide regulatory tools for using sludge and materials containing sludge. We aim to transfer the regulation of sludge spreading into this evolved EPR framework in 2023.

7.4 Radioactive substances

Radioactive substances and radiation have many beneficial uses including their use in medicine, diagnostics and in low carbon power generation. Our regulation plays an important part in protecting people and air, land and water from radioactive contamination, and ensures safe delivery of these benefits.

Monitoring and assessment

Each year the UK environment and food safety agencies collaborate on the monitoring and assessment of radioactivity in food and the environment, publishing the results in the Radioactivity in Food and the Environment report (RIFE).

This independent programme is an important part of our regulatory process and fulfils a vital reassurance role. In 2020 we celebrated 25 years of RIFE. During this time more than a quarter of a million environmental measurements were made. The 2020 RIFE report showed that there were no major changes in radioactivity levels in 2019 and radiation exposure of the public from the permitted discharge of radioactive waste continued to be below legal limits.

Healthcare (nuclear medicine and radiotherapy)

We are engaged with suppliers and treatment providers on a range of new nuclear medicine treatments for cancer that are due to be licensed for use in the UK over the next few years. The introduction of these treatments may lead to an increase in the production of radioactive waste and potentially the release into the environment of radioactive substances. We are working with interested parties to ensure that treatment providers are able to use these new therapies while ensuring that the public and the environment is protected from any necessary discharge of radioactive waste.

Radiation incident management and resilience

We work with other government departments, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, other UK regulators, international experts and the nuclear industry to help maintain UK nuclear safety.

Nuclear and Radiological Emergencies: Recovery Working Group

We continued to work in partnership with Defra and others to enhance the UK’s preparedness to recover from the accidental or hostile release of radioactive material. This is in response to Public Health England’s Review of national nuclear emergency recovery capability (2016), which led to Defra ministers recommending to the National Security Council that the Nuclear and Radiological Emergencies: Recovery Working Group be re-established to deliver against the review’s recommendations.

During 2020 we continued to lead a review of the national arrangements for managing radioactive waste in emergencies, which will include the production of a new UK plan. We also continued to work closely with Defra on a review of legislation that can be applied to the recovery from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) incidents.

Nuclear decommissioning and radioactive waste management

In partnership with the other UK environment agencies we published guidance for nuclear site operators on our requirements for release from radioactive substances regulation. This requires nuclear site operators to have waste management plans, demonstrating their optimisation of waste management. They are also required to have a site wide environmental safety case. This informs their waste management plans and provides the basis for demonstrating the eventual suitability of the site for release from our regulatory control.

These are significant new requirements applicable across the nuclear sector. They establish an approach which not only better clarifies our expectations for operators but also enables a more sustainable approach to nuclear decommissioning and clean-up. For example, helping to avoid unnecessary waste generation and transport miles.

In 2019 we worked with operators and other regulators to establish a national programme for implementing these requirements. This will facilitate the sharing of knowledge and experience across the industry in this area, undertaking our own research to inform our regulatory considerations, and resolving some of the technical queries that have started to emerge.

Since the launch of the government policy paper, Implementing Geological Disposal: Working with Communities: An updated framework for the long-term management of higher activity radioactive waste in 2018, we have continued to provide pre-application advice and scrutiny of radioactive waste management (RWM).

We have continued our work to prepare to support discussions with communities, local authorities and others considering hosting a geological disposal facility and provided updates on our role. Working Group discussions have now started and we have offered our support to those discussions.

8. Green growth and a sustainable future

One of the goals from our action plan, EA2025, creating a better place, is that by 2025 we will achieve cleaner, greener growth by supporting businesses and communities to make good choices, through our roles as a regulator, adviser and operator. We want to support businesses, giving them the confidence to invest, innovate and grow. The amount and nature of regulation should be proportionate to the risk of the activity being regulated.

We want regulated customers to approach us. Early conversations can prevent costly issues arising that could stop or hold up projects, including loss of investors or rejected permit applications. Within regulatory frameworks, we want to focus on the outcomes required (for example, reduced emissions or noise reductions). Talking with businesses allows us to agree the best option for an activity, which can save them money.

8.1 Circular economy

For a more sustainable future we need to transition to a circular economy where the value of products, materials and resources is preserved for as long as possible and waste generation is minimised. From fuel, food and water, to wood, metals and plastics, a circular approach to using these resources is required.

We support government ambitions to preserve resources and move towards a circular economy. Our work on promoting resource efficiency, regulating waste management, tackling waste crime and investigating the risk of plastics to the environment all contribute.

Promoting resource efficiency

The permits we issue under EPR contribute towards achieving circular economy objectives through:

  • encouraging reduced energy use
  • improved resource efficiency
  • minimising waste generation
  • using secondary raw materials

In 2020 we continued to work on replacing European BAT guidance with UK guidance.

Waste reuse and recovery helps protect natural resources and reduce the need to dispose of material. In recent years, more waste has been reused and recycled, and less landfilled. Twenty years ago nearly all waste went to landfill. Most waste is now reused or used for energy generation. But this has led to a large increase in the number of sites storing and treating wastes, often in close proximity to communities. In turn this has also increased the risks of fires and odours.

Waste management inputs, 2000/01 to 2020 (million tonnes)

Year Landfill Transfer Treatment
2020 39.8 45.6 86.9
2015 43.9 44.9 64.1
2010 43.6 39.6 30.9
2005 67.9 44.5 24.6
2000/01 79.9 39.4 10.6

Waste from regulated industry

The total amount of waste produced by sites we permit has largely plateaued over the past 10 years. Recovery rates have gradually increased over this time period to a high of 74% in 2019 and 2020.

Waste produced by sites with permits, 2010 to 2020 (million tonnes)

Year Waste produced by sites with permits (million tonnes)
2020 14.8
2019 15.1
2018 14.8
2017 16.8
2016 15.4
2015 14.0
2014 14.1
2013 14.7
2012 14.7
2011 13.1
2010 14.3

Waste recovered by sites with permits, 2010 to 2020 (%)

Year Waste recovered by sites with permits (%)
2020 74
2019 74
2018 72
2017 68
2016 67
2015 65
2014 64
2013 59
2012 56
2011 64
2010 66

8.2 Waste exports

Any waste exports other than clean, separated material sent for recycling, must be notified to us. Exports of notified waste are predominantly refuse derived fuels sent to European countries for energy recovery. In 2020, 2.2 million tonnes of notified waste was exported from England.

Green list wastes are considered low risk to the environment and subject to lower regulatory controls. Unless specific restrictions are set by the receiving country, sorted, uncontaminated waste sent for recycling overseas can be exported as green list waste.

In 2020, we received 472 export notifications and 206 import notifications.

We have strengthened our assessment of exporters of packaging waste that is subject to producer responsibility regulations. This applies where the waste is being exported for the purpose of contributing to the UK packaging recycling rates. Exporters are required to demonstrate that:

  • exported waste is high quality with minimal contamination
  • destination sites are appropriately licensed to receive and treat the waste
  • waste is correctly processed once received

In 2020, almost 3.8 million tonnes of this type of packaging waste was exported by accredited exporters. We approved over 6,700 applications from operators for overseas sites to receive packaging waste for reprocessing.

8.3 Waste crime

One of the goals in our EA2025 action plan is that by 2025 we will have cut waste crime and helped develop a circular economy.

The cost of waste crime in England to the legitimate waste industry and the taxpayer was estimated to be £924 million in 2018/19.[footnote 42] This is a significant increase from the previously estimated costs of waste crime of £604 million in 2015.

Rogue operators illegally dumping or exporting waste, or the deliberate mis-describing of wastes, undermines legitimate businesses by disposing of waste cheaply and recklessly. This harms the environment and local communities and deprives the government of tax income. Tackling this type of illegal activity is complex but very important. Understanding the full scale of waste crime is an ongoing challenge to which we are committed.

In the financial year 2020 to 2021 we brought prosecutions against 12 companies and individuals for waste crime offences. This resulted in total fines exceeding £417,000.

The average cost of closing an illegal waste site more than doubled between 2014 and 2018, from £3,700 to £8,300 per site. This is the result of the increasingly complex nature of waste crime.

Illegal waste sites are one of our largest causes of serious pollution incidents, and blight neighbourhoods not only here but also across the globe. Our work in tackling waste crime is funded by government rather than our charge payers. We continue to work with government to emphasise the importance of tackling waste crime and in securing the resource needed.

The more information we gather, the more effective we become at unravelling the operations of waste criminals. We’ve been intelligence led for many years and through 2020 we forged ahead with new partners.

We now work with Nominet who are able to stop illegal operators using the internet to secure business. This up-stream intervention stops waste criminals before they cause significant impact to the environment and communities.

We also joined the Waste Compliance Taskforce (WACT); a collaborative cross-sector group working to improve awareness of and compliance with waste regulations and to increase resilience to waste crime.

Illegal waste sites

As with all our 2020 data, the illegal waste site figures must be viewed with consideration to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on our operational capabilities.

While operational teams have been able to adapt to new ways of working, COVID-19 restrictions and the implications on resourcing still presented difficulties for substantiating new illegal waste sites. We may also have received fewer public reports of illegal sites than we normally would because people were not out and about as usual.

At the end of March 2021 the number of active illegal waste sites was the lowest we have seen, with the number of high risk sites lower than our target for the year. As we return to ‘normal’ we may see an increase in the number of illegal waste sites, of which a proportion will be high risk.

Illegal waste sites, 2015/16 to 2020/21: new sites found and illegal activity stopped

Year New sites found Illegal activity stopped
2020/21 621 722
2019/20 775 940
2018/19 896 912
2017/18 856 812
2016/17 852 824
2015/16 1016 989

Illegal waste sites, 2015/16 to 2020/21: sites active at the end of the financial year

Year All sites active at the end of the financial year High risk sites active at the end of the financial year
2020/21 470 197
2019/20 544 238
2018/19 685 255
2017/18 673 267
2016/17 601 262
2015/16 622 273

Large-scale dumping

We dealt with 151 incidents of illegal large-scale dumping in the financial year 2020 to 2021. Since 2016, this type of incident has more typically numbered between 200 and 230.

We classified the majority of these incidents as category 3, having a minor impact on the environment, people and property. However, these incidents can still have a pronounced detrimental effect on legitimate businesses and the welfare of the community, and deter re-development and economic growth.

Illegal waste exports

Businesses involved in the shipment of wastes must ensure that the waste they handle is managed in an environmentally sound manner throughout its shipment and recycling. These are often deliberately mis-described as recyclable materials.

We inspected 1,719 containers of waste in the financial year 2020 to 2021, a figure comparable to 2019 and still almost twice the number we inspected in 2018. Of these, 176 containers of waste were returned to their site of loading which, combined with our regulatory intervention at waste sites, prevented the illegal export of over 11,000 tonnes of waste.

8.4 Chemicals regulation

We have a pivotal role in ensuring compliance with regulations covering the most environmentally damaging chemicals, working alongside the Health and Safety Executive. Unlike traditional site-based regulation, this work covers many types of imported and domestically produced goods.

We police both store-based and e-commerce market places to prevent the sale of illegal goods. For example, our Chemical Compliance Team has been looking at the sale of mercury thermometers on the internet. Between February and April 2020 we detected and were able to respond to a 300% increase in the number of attempts to sell these items as the COVID-19 pandemic started. Our flexible and responsive compliance model allows us to manage these changes and quickly redirect resource to other products such as paints, textiles or plastics, when the situation normalises.

The chemicals we consider can pose a risk to the environment, but also to the health of consumers, for example the use of mercury in skin lightening creams. The risks from chemicals to the environment are increasing. This is due to a range of factors, including:

  • more chemicals being developed and used
  • an ongoing legacy of contamination from some substances that have been banned or restricted
  • increasing awareness of levels of chemical contamination in the natural environment, such as land and water
  • persistent harmful chemicals continuing to build up in the environment, waste streams, wildlife and people

The original 2001 list of 12 banned Persistent Organic Chemicals (POPs) in the Stockholm Convention has tripled in recent years and is expected to grow further.

8.5 Plastics

Plastic litter causes harm through entanglement of wildlife, and many creatures are ingesting plastic. In 2020 we continued our work to help understand the risks posed by plastics entering the environment and what this means for our regulatory control.


  • shared our evidence gaps with researchers, Research Councils, the Five Agencies ShARE programme, Innovate UK, and helped to join up research needs across the Defra Group
  • continued working with Defra, water companies and academia to progress more immediate agreement of definitions and techniques
  • completed and published Our Challenges and Choices Consultation which contained two key questions on plastics pollution

Reducing plastics entering the environment

We continued our work to replace Quality Protocols with new Resource Frameworks for compost and digestate materials. These frameworks set out end of waste criteria for the production and use of a product from a specific waste type.

We also:

  • engaged with the six water companies using plastic ‘bio-beads’ in some wastewater treatment processes resulting in them installing containment measures to prevent their loss
  • worked in partnership with the biowaste industry on regulatory and other voluntary changes, and various campaigns to reduce plastics contamination in green waste and food waste
  • engaged with farmers through our Key Actions for Farmers which focuses on resource efficiency, with actions for preventing plastics escaping into the environment
  • continued our work as a partner in the Interreg funded Preventing Plastic Pollution project, working to reducing plastic consumption through adopting a more circular approach to waste with individuals, businesses and communities

Reducing plastics across our supply chains

We have reduced the use of single-use plastics in our laboratories by around 250,000 units each year. We have done this by embracing new sampling technology and techniques, increasing our use of fully recyclable sampling syringes and trialling a glove recycling scheme.

9. References

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