The future for environmental regulation and opportunities for the UK to lead internationally

This report is for England. Most of the data presented are for the calendar year 2021. Where information is only available by financial year, it is for April 2021 to March 2022.

1. Chief executive’s foreword

Regulation should be focused on making the places we live better. It should be about making the environment cleaner. It should be about making our lives better, because a cleaner environment benefits us all. It is also about supporting growth, because well-designed regulation gives business the confidence to invest, innovate and grow.

Done well, regulation maintains and increases standards and outcomes – it is simple to understand and strikes a balance between compliance and enforcement. Done well, regulation is agile and adaptable – it means keeping pace with changing expectations and understanding the interlink between the environment, economic drivers, and business behaviours. It is also proportionate – effective regulation with tougher punishments when required is critical if we are to create an environment for the future that we all want.

This year’s ‘Regulating for people, the environment and growth, 2021’ report highlights the Environment Agency’s approach to regulation and the work it is doing to ensure regulation meets our ambition to create better places.

Responding to the climate emergency is at the heart of everything the Environment Agency does. That means protecting people and the environment through effective regulation. It is working: in 2021, the climate change emissions trading and energy efficiency schemes that we manage delivered a 9 million tonne reduction of CO2 compared to 2020. Since 2010, emissions of greenhouse gases from the sites we regulate under the Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR) have decreased by 50%.

The work that the Environment Agency is doing is driving improvements in water quality and availability. Through changes to abstraction licences, we have removed the risk of the potential abstraction of 1.7 trillion litres of water from the environment. Serious pollution incidents recorded have halved since 2000. And a record 99% of bathing waters in England met or exceeded the minimum quality standard in 2021. The government has accepted recommendations made in the Independent Reservoir Safety Review (May 2021) and announced on 20 July 2022 that it will take forward strengthening the reservoir safety regime and modernising the Reservoirs Act 1975. This will include strengthening the Environment Agency’s regulatory role.

To meet the threats of the climate emergency, innovation is required to bring in new technologies to the industries we regulate. That is why the Environment Agency is working with operators to advise industry on how to decarbonise, reduce environmental risks and implement new technologies. We are helping these industries consider the future impacts of climate change on their business to support that innovation which will drive economic growth.

But we also know that more needs to be done. In 2021, the environmental performance of England’s water and sewerage companies was the worst we have seen for years. Serious pollution incidents increased to their highest total since 2013, while monitors on storm overflows – installed at our insistence – are highlighting that untreated sewage flows into our rivers all too frequently.

We welcome the record £90 million fine imposed on Southern Water for widespread pollution last July – a clear signal that this is not what we or the public expect from companies whose job it is to treat sewage and protect the environment. For those who willingly disregard the law, we need to see strong deterrents or companies will simply consider this the cost of doing business.

Likewise, agriculture is a significant source of environmental emissions and incidents. Non-compliance here results in significant negative impacts on our rivers. Brexit is a considerable opportunity to simplify and reform EU legacy legislation for the better. The Environment Agency continues to work with farmers to help improve performance in the sector and in turn help them improve the resilience of their businesses to climate change.

I am hugely proud of the work of the Environment Agency that we set out in this year’s report and, more importantly, the people that do it. These achievements show that when regulation is done well, we really can support growth and create a better place for people, wildlife and the environment.

2. Main facts 2021

2.1 Our approach to regulation

  • Most of the industrial sites we regulate continue to be well run. Based on a 5-year moving average, the percentage of permits in the top compliance bands, A, B and C, has remained at 97% since 2013.
  • Over the last 5 years, an average of just under 400 industrial sites each year have not complied with their permits (bands D, E and F). Of these, an average of 140 each year are persistent poor performers.
  • Fines totalling £105 million were issued by the courts as a result of over 100 environmental prosecution cases brought by us in 2021. This included a single fine of £90 million for illegal sewage discharges.
  • Over the last 5 years, environmental projects and improvement schemes have received over £15 million from enforcement undertakings offered as a result of our enforcement.
  • We built on our experiences and learning from 2020, and continued to develop and deploy our digital services and new innovative ways of working to support those we regulate in managing the impacts of the ongoing pandemic.
  • We processed around 76,000 transactions for businesses and individuals (including exemptions, registrations, licences and permit applications). Most of these were waste exemptions registered online.

2.2 A nation resilient to climate change

  • Since 2017, through reviewing, changing and revoking abstraction licences, we have removed the risk of the potential abstraction of 1.7 trillion litres of water from the environment. This is equivalent to supplying a city the size of London with water for 2 years.
  • In 2021, the climate change emissions trading and energy efficiency schemes that we manage collectively delivered a 9 million tonne reduction of CO2 compared to 2020, equating to an estimated £2.2 billion in carbon cost savings.
  • Since 2010, emissions of greenhouse gases from the sites we regulate under the EPR have decreased by 50%. Methane emissions from these sites have decreased by 51%.
  • We are working with operators to consider the future impacts of a changing climate on their activities.
  • We provided advice and guidance to operators, influencing how industry decarbonises, to minimise the environmental risks of implementing low and zero carbon technologies.

2.3 Healthy air, land and water

  • In 2021, we recorded 561 serious pollution incidents. This has decreased from over 1,100 in 2000, but has not changed significantly since 2010.
  • Most serious pollution incidents are now caused by activities that we do not regulate directly. We have sought to address these activities through guidance and campaigns. These have reduced in line with funding.
  • Since 2010, emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from the sites we regulate have decreased by 72%, sulphur oxides (SOx) by 90%, and small particulate matter (PM10) by 52%.
  • While 79% of the elements we monitor in fresh water meet environmental quality standards, this equates to only 14% of rivers meeting good ecological status under the Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) Regulations. The main reasons for failure are due to farming and water company discharges.
  • In 2021, a record 99% of bathing waters in England met or exceeded the minimum quality standard. Over 70% achieved an excellent standard. This compares with 98.3% passing the required standards in 2019 and is the highest number since new standards were introduced in 2015.
  • We carried out 721 farm inspections in 2021 (more than double 2020 inspections), resulting in positive action from the industry completing 413 of the 976 improvement actions that will have real environmental outcomes. Continuing our advice-led regulatory approach will help farmers benefit from the new funding initiatives available to them post Brexit, where compliance with regulation is often a baseline requirement.
  • In 2021, we recorded over 370,000 sewage discharges from water company storm overflows, totalling over 2.6 million hours. Some 87% of storm overflows had at least one spill, with 5% spilling more than 100 times. This information is the result of our regulatory requirements forcing water companies to undertake more monitoring of discharges.

2.4 Growth and a sustainable future

  • 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 period to a high of 77%.
  • An estimated 18% of all waste is managed illegally at some point in the waste stream, with only a quarter of all waste crimes being reported to us.
  • We stopped 561 illegal waste sites operating and found 445 new sites.
  • At the end of March 2022, 419 known illegal waste sites were still active. This is the lowest figure we have seen.
  • We inspected 1,390 containers of waste which, combined with our regulatory intervention at waste sites, prevented the illegal export of more than 19,000 tonnes of waste.

3. Introduction

This report focuses on the environmental performance of the businesses we regulated in 2021.

This year, as in others, our evidence shows that where we have the right regulatory framework and the right resources we drive environmental improvements. Regulation works. It protects the environment for people and wildlife, it provides a level playing field for regulated businesses, and it stops irresponsible or illegal businesses undercutting legitimate ones. Where activities are not directly regulated, we have less control. The comparison between emissions of sulphur oxides (SOx) and ammonia illustrates the point. Recent years have seen SOx emissions from regulated facilities fall by 90%, while ammonia emissions, mainly from farms that are not regulated by the Environment Agency, have not fallen. Both these pollutants harm people and the environment.

The number of industrial sites with permits in the top compliance bands has remained high at 97% since 2013. This has contributed to the overall improvement in air quality, reducing harm to people and costs to the health service. Carbon emissions trading and energy efficiency schemes compliance rates were over 95%. In 2021, we continued to work with industries to support and enable new technologies that are needed for the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Working with Ofwat and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), our regulation of water and sewage companies has resulted in:

  • significant investment in water treatment infrastructure, including a programme to install event duration monitors on storm overflows from 2016 onwards
  • significant improvements in bathing water quality with 99% meeting or exceeding the required standards in 2021
  • reductions in organic pollution (biochemical oxygen demand), phosphorus and ammonia from monitored discharges, which leads to greater biodiversity in our rivers

Where there is not an adequate regulatory framework in place, there are problems:

  • waste crime continues to be a huge challenge – we estimate that around 34 million tonnes of waste is currently managed illegally every year, costing the economy an estimated £924 million per year
  • many of the most serious pollution incidents are caused by activities that do not have an environmental permit
  • inland water quality is still not good enough, with untreated sewage flowing from storm overflows, and manure, sludge and chemicals from farming entering rivers and watercourses
  • farming continues to be a major cause of greenhouse gases, such as methane, and pollutants, such as ammonia

In 2021 the COVID-19 pandemic still caused challenges and uncertainties for those we regulate. Consequently, our regulatory response continued to recognise that it may not be possible for those we regulate to comply fully with regulatory requirements for reasons beyond their control. In such cases, we introduced regulatory easements (regulatory position statements) on a time-limited and strictly controlled basis.

We continue to work with Defra, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and others to deliver effective post-EU regulation. In May 2022, we published our Regulatory Statement, recognising the reduced disruption due to COVID-19, and signalling a renewed focus on our future regulatory approach.

The new Environment Act 2021 is a powerful piece of legislation containing measures introducing long-term targets to improve air quality, biodiversity, water, waste reduction and resource efficiency. New legal targets for water will help wider efforts to tackle pollution, reduce demand for water and secure clean and plentiful water for all. The new act brings significant opportunities for nature recovery, through Biodiversity Net Gain, and a more circular economy, through more recycling, sustainable packaging, and the powers to enable the Environment Agency to recover the full costs of its regulatory activity in relation to waste crime.

4. Our approach to regulation

4.1 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 through local officers, national services, and trade and sector meetings.

We also run public consultations. We carried out 70 national external consultations with stakeholders in 2021.

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 13 such appeals from business against our regulatory decisions in 2021. After investigation 3 appeals were upheld. Most of our decisions go unchallenged.

Regulating to support innovation

The climate emergency, and the drive towards a low carbon, circular economy requires step changes in the activities we regulate. 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 more prescriptive legislation can limit the scope for innovation and new ways of working by not being outcome focussed or allowing flexibility in implementation. We continue to work with government, partners and those we regulate to support regulatory reform.

Changes in legislation can be slow, while the speed of technological development or new evidence of environmental harm may mean action is needed quickly. We seek to 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 regulatory position statements (RPSs)
  • provide early advice to nuclear reactor technology designers and assess designs generically prior to site-specific permitting

In 2021, we extended a temporary RPS allowing the incinerator bottom ash aggregate industry to continue to operate while we worked with them to change regulatory requirements. This work saved businesses £254 million, as measured by the government’s Business Impact Target, and gives continued environmental protection while regulatory changes are made. In 2021 we also continued our advisory work for government on advanced nuclear technologies. This ensures that environmental protection and sustainability are considered early in the design process. It also offers a reduction in uncertainty and project risk for the designers about the design and environmental safety case, so as to enable future regulatory activities.

4.2 Digital services and technology

Improving our regulatory service includes using new technologies, creating and improving digital services and making data available. It leads to greater efficiencies, improves relationships with those we regulate, and will reduce our carbon footprint.

We are continuing to make our permitting activities as digital as possible. The uptake of applying for some permits through our digital service has risen year by year. However, the lack of digital options for most applicants means that only 6.6% of all applications to the National Permitting Service are received in this way.

In 2021:

  • 60% of our applications for new waste standard rules permits were applied for through our digital service, up from 54% in 2020
  • water resources digital abstraction returns were at 95% – digital water abstraction returns have resulted in combined savings for businesses of around £255,000 per year, and since 2018 have saved roughly 11km of paper (if the forms were laid end to end)
  • 99% of waste carrier registrations were digital

We also:

  • went live with our new document management system, moving 8.5 million documents from a 20-year-old legacy system
  • went live with our regulatory services platform for T11 waste exemptions, which allow operators to repair or refurbish waste electrical and electronic equipment
  • completed discovery and design work for our enforcement platform (Nexus), charge and payments platform, modern data platform and our customer portals platform
  • developed our water resources licencing service e-alerts, to be realised in 2022
  • successfully secured funding through the Spending Review for the next 3 years to continue to build modern digital services and platforms for our regulatory and charging activities

The new document management system can be integrated with other digital systems, is quicker, more searchable and expandable to meet our future needs for document storage. Decommissioning our legacy system allowed us to remove 26 old servers, leading to carbon savings. The regulatory services platform provides a new service for managing regulatory applications and permissions across the organisation, providing efficiencies in input and administration of data, freeing up resources and saving time. We continue to work on including additional regimes to the regulatory services platform.

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.

4.3 Permitting

Our permitting and licensing activities enable businesses to carry out their operations, while protecting the environment and providing 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. For example, where the risks from industrial activities are higher, the permits are more complex, with more controls on emissions and inputs. Where we need to protect sustainable abstraction for all water users, stricter licence conditions or bespoke permits are issued. Lower hazard, simple activities can be exempted from the requirement to have a permit or licence, with rules set in the legislation – although many are still required to register with us.

During the period, our National Permitting Service has been under considerable capacity pressures, caused largely by the pandemic and socio-economic factors that affected all parts of our nation. This has significantly delayed our permit application process times. We are actively implementing a programme of strategic changes to our permitting processes and how we deliver them to address ongoing capacity and associated recruitment issues. The benefits of these changes have yet to be fully delivered and realised. We processed around 76,000 transactions for businesses and individuals in 2021 (including exemptions, registrations, licences and permit applications). These vary in complexity and range, from someone making a simple online registration, to our staff carrying out a comprehensive assessment of the potential environmental impact of an activity. The majority of these were exemptions registered on-line.

Our National Permitting Service issues and deals with permits and licences for waste, water quality, water resources and industrial activities. In 2021, it:

  • processed 4,127 new applications
  • issued 3,427 variations
  • dealt with 848 surrenders
  • dealt with 887 transfers
  • registered 1,540 mobile plant deployments

Of these we refused or rejected 47 applications that we determined could not be carried out safely.

We also:

  • registered 61,986 waste exemptions
  • made 2,217 flood risk activity permit decisions
  • registered 1,241 flood risk activity exemptions

4.4 Permit compliance and operator performance

In 2021, as the restrictions from the pandemic eased, we once again began to carry out more on-site regulatory work, while integrating lessons learned from the new ways of working introduced in the pandemic.

Environmental Permitting Regulations

Most industrial sites we regulate under EPR are well run. Based on a 5-year moving average, the percentage of permits in the top compliance bands, A, B and C, has remained at 97% since 2013. For permits in bands A and B, the 5-year moving average in 2021 was 93%, an improvement on 91% in 2015 and 89% in 2010.

Over the last 5 years, an average of just under 400 sites each year (around 3%) have significantly failed to comply with permit conditions in such a way that risks damage to the environment, people, or places (those in band D, E or F). The majority of the most serious (category 1 and 2) permit breaches are due to general management issues – in particular, inadequate management systems, materials acceptance, and storage and handling.

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-year average, compared to 1.5% in all the other sectors combined.

The refineries sector is made up of only 4 sites and all have a high level of associated hazard. Three of these high hazard sites are currently D or E performers.

Over the past 5 years there have been, on average, 140 persistently poorly managed sites. These are sites with permits in D, E or F bands for 2 or more consecutive years. Most of these sites are in the waste sector, but since 2017, there has been an increase in non-waste sector persistent poor performers.

Persistent poor performers: permits in compliance bands D, E or F for the last 2 consecutive years

Year Waste activities All other industry All sectors
2021 110 23 133
2020 113 16 129
2019 131 19 150
2018 128 12 140
2017 135 9 144
2016 166 9 175
2015 203 10 213

Permits in compliance band F for the last 2 consecutive years

Operator Sector Permit number
Dairy Crest Limited Food and drink BP3200BF
Bliss Sand and Gravel Company Landfill 210029
Opes MRF 2013 Limited Landfill LP3703BZ
British Steel Limited Metals: ferrous CP3204LX
AS (an individual) Waste treatment: metals recycling 60758
Infinity Metals Limited Waste treatment: metals recycling 65154
Whites of Coventry Limited Waste treatment: metals recycling 48263
EW (an individual) Waste treatment: non hazardous 61827
Jones Waste Services Limited Waste treatment: non hazardous 42599
Autospares (Bingley) Limited Waste treatment: non hazardous 60651

The drivers of poor compliance are many and varied. They include the views, behaviour, and skills of the operator, as well as external factors.

Our regulatory approach is not consistently effective at maintaining previously poorly performing sites in compliance. Since 2015, 8.1% of waste sites brought into compliance (bands A or B) within 1 year of a D, E, or F rating fall back into a D, E or F band rating within 3 years. This rose to 8.8 % falling back into non-compliance within 4 years. We are planning further research to identify factors that influence the likelihood of a poorly performing site being brought into compliance and the most effective intervention options for these conditions.

Water and sewerage companies

We have published our report on the Environmental performance of the water and sewerage companies in 2021. Two of the 9 water and sewerage companies were rated as poor (1 star), 4 were rated as requiring improvement (2 star) and 3 were rated as industry leading (4 star) in our Environmental Performance Assessment. This sector performance is much worse than in 2020, driven by both poorer performance and our higher expectations.

Our Improving Water Company Performance Taskforce is looking at numerous workstreams to improve all aspects of water company performance and to ensure we remain an effective regulator. Our goal is to gather intelligence on water company performance, to inform strategic planning and tactical delivery.

Energy efficiency and emissions trading schemes

There are a number of industrial decarbonisation schemes, including 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 in 2021, we successfully delivered compliance rates of over 95% for the:

  • UK Emissions Trading Scheme for installations
  • UK Emissions Trading Scheme for aviation
  • Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA)
  • Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (phase 2)
  • Climate Change Agreements (CCA)
  • Fluorinated greenhouse gases (F gas) and ozone-depleting substances

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

In 2021, we continued to support the government’s EU Exit strategy and the transition of these schemes to the UK. For the UK ETS we worked with BEIS on the timely delivery of various implementation projects to ensure scheme compliance. We jointly developed a new UK ETS registry and opened over 1,000 new registry accounts so that 2021 compliance requirements could be achieved.

We also supported BEIS to develop the process for new reporting requirements for certain users in the UK ETS, namely reporting activity level as well as emissions. We provided guidance for operators and developed internal tools to allow us to ensure compliance.

When necessary, we take enforcement action and issue civil penalties for a range of breaches covered by the schemes we administer. In 2021, we issued 31 civil penalties totalling over £1.9 million for breaches of these climate change schemes.

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 digital, reducing the administrative burden on those we regulate and making it easier to comply with their obligations.

In 2021, the climate change emissions trading and energy efficiency schemes that we manage delivered:

  • a 9 million tonne reduction of CO2, compared with 2020 reported emissions – using the BEIS carbon value of £245 per tonne of CO2 in 2021, this equates to an estimated £2.2 billion carbon cost saving
  • 309 new agreements and 753 variations (CCA)
  • 550 registrations for F-gas and ozone-depleting substances regulations
  • 1,400 quota or authorisation transactions (F-gas)
  • more than 15,000 help desk queries

Abstraction licences

During 2021, we checked 2,663 water abstraction licences and found 87% were compliant with the terms of their licence. The reasons for non-compliance were varied. Breaches were mainly 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 (142 licence breaches). Some abstractors exceeded their licence volume limits (55 licence breaches), or abstracted water despite river levels falling below critical trigger thresholds (27 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.

In 2021, the proposed move of the regulation of abstraction and impounding licensing into the EPR regime went to public consultation. The proposal will make the charging framework fairer, work better for businesses and the environment, and be financially sustainable.

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 extremely 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 2,116 large, raised reservoirs in England and use a range of enforcement options to address non-compliance.

Between January 2021 and December 2021, we:

  • recorded 155 certificates after satisfactory completion of an inspection
  • recorded 74 certificates that contained measures to be taken in the interests of safety
  • recorded 67 certificates showing that measures to be taken in the interests of safety had been satisfactorily completed
  • served 18 enforcement notices

In April 2021, the government issued a direction stating that all operators and owners of large, raised reservoirs must prepare on-site emergency flood plans for their reservoirs. The plans must be certified by a qualified civil engineer, and we will be responsible for monitoring operator compliance.

In June 2021, we published new reservoir flood risk maps for 1,865 large, raised reservoirs. This enables lead local flood authorities and local resilience forums to be better prepared to protect communities in the event of a reservoir dam incident.

4.5 Enforcement action

We support operators to do the right thing, but will not hesitate to take further action, or the necessary measures, to reduce environmental harm. During the COVID-19 pandemic our teams continued to investigate environmental offending and prepare legal cases.

In 2021, we:

  • brought 107 prosecution cases resulting in fines totalling over £105 million
  • issued 2 formal cautions
  • issued 206 enforcement notices
  • completed 53 enforcement undertakings totalling £3.1 million in donations to environmental projects or improvements

These are enforcement actions used for all environmental offences by businesses and individuals.

Enforcement actions used for environmental offences in England, 2015 to 2021

Year Enforcement notices Prosecutions Cautions Enforcement undertakings
2021 206 107 2 53
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

In 2021, courts fined water companies over £102 million for pollution offences following our prosecutions. This included a record £90 million fine for Southern Water. This case, which was our largest criminal investigation to date, brought together pollution offences from 16 wastewater treatment works and one storm overflow into one large scale prosecution case. Southern Water pleaded guilty to thousands of illegal discharges of sewage which polluted rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex.

Offenders with total fines over £100,000 in 2021

These are linked cases:

  • European Metal Recycling Limited and UK Environmental Limited
  • M E Foley (Contractors) Limited and Mark Foley
Offender Sector Total fines in 2021
Southern Water Services Limited Water industry £90,000,000
Thames Water Utilities Limited Water industry £10,300,000
Biffa Waste Services Limited Waste management £1,500,000
Severn Trent Water Limited Water industry £1,500,000
Northumbrian Water Limited Water industry £540,000
European Metal Recycling Limited Waste management £400,000
UK Environmental Limited Waste management £28,000
Miller Homes Construction and demolition £200,000
M E Foley (Contractors) Limited Waste management £144,000
Mark Foley Waste management Imprisoned – 27 months

In 2021, in conjunction with Ofwat, we began a criminal investigation into potential widespread non-compliance by water and sewerage companies at wastewater treatment works. The investigation was launched after companies revealed to us that they may be in breach of their permit conditions. This issue was brought to light following our requirement of companies to improve how they monitor and manage flow-to-full treatment at wastewater treatment works through the installation of new monitors.

Enforcement undertakings remain an effective enforcement option for less serious offending, whereby polluters and those who breach environmental requirements restore the environment themselves or fund other environmental projects or improvements in the local catchment or area. Over the past 5 years more than £15 million has been put towards environmental projects or improvements as a result of enforcement undertakings.

Businesses that completed enforcement undertakings totalling over £100,000 in 2021

Company or individual Sector Payments to third parties for environmental projects or improvements
Yorkshire Water Services Limited Water industry £1,050,000
Severn Trent Water Limited Water industry £564,509
Wessex Water Services Limited Water industry £200,000
Tarmac Aggregates Limited Quarrying £200,000
Thames Water Utilities Limited Water industry £122,520
Anglian Water Services Limited Water industry £100,000

5. A nation resilient to climate change

Tackling the climate emergency is central to the work of the Environment Agency. Climate change will exacerbate environmental risks from, and to, regulated industries. We are helping industries to manage these risks by providing advice and, where we have powers to do so, adjusting our regulatory permits to account for climate change. We will also support the development of more flexible regulatory approaches to accommodate rapid environmental change.

We administer the UK’s Climate Change Agreements scheme to help industry reduce carbon emissions and we are supporting new decarbonisation technologies. Our regulation has driven down the emission of greenhouse gases, helping mitigate the climate emergency. Our regulation is also encouraging climate change adaptation, for example by leading on the management of 2 of the biggest climate impacts – too much and too little water.

More information on how climate change will affect the Environment Agency’s work, and how we are preparing for these affects, can be found in our third adaptation report, published in October 2021.

5.1 Supporting a fair and resilient transition to net zero

We all have a role to play in tackling the climate emergency, which is why the Environment Agency has committed to reaching net zero by 2030. As an operator and a regulator, the Environment Agency has a leading role in helping the country get to net zero by 2050, a commitment the UK government set out in law in 2019.

Through regulation, we are helping business and industry reduce their emissions by administering the UK ETS, and to make better use of resources. We are using evidence to engage decision-makers and others so the health of people and the environment are at the heart of their decisions. We are 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.

For many sectors, decarbonisation means that new infrastructure, processes and installations are needed by 2050. We want to ensure that decarbonisation of industrial sectors is sustainable and does not lead to additional risks.

We are working with industry to consider environmental limits such as water use and water quality and to minimise the cumulative environmental risks of implementing low and zero carbon technologies. For example, determining the best ways to mitigate the unintended consequences to air pollution from some net zero interventions and understanding the multiple and competing demands net zero could have on water supplies.

Case study: Enabling UK net zero through our Environmental Constraints in Industrial Clusters project

This BEIS sponsored project focused on the technology that is being deployed this decade to capture and store carbon dioxide and develop the hydrogen economy. Government has set out an ambition to create 4 low carbon industrial clusters by 2030. These industrial clusters must exist within the limits of the environment, now and into the future. Through the project we are influencing how industry decarbonises and designs new projects that will be truly sustainable and resilient in a changing climate.

In 2021, we published best available technique (BAT) guidance on post-combustion carbon dioxide capture. We need new carbon capture technologies to be fit for the future when deployed at scale and operate within the environmental constraints a future climate brings. They must deliver low carbon ambitions by reducing emissions, but also protect people and wildlife (Energy Research Partnership, 2021).

5.2 Adaptation in permitting

Our climate change adaptation report presents an action plan to help us as a regulator to become more forward looking, to do more within our existing powers and to work more collaboratively. For example, by using management systems as a common route to ensure that all permitted installations and waste operations are planning for the predicted mean global temperature rises. Business must consider the risks for their individual sites, but also for the failure and disruption to their supply chains, and the potential for adverse impacts for local communities and the environment.

Case study: SEEBEYOND project

The SEEBEYOND Project responds directly to one of the biggest challenges in the food and drink sector: to mitigate climate change.

The project developed a set of standardised environmental metrics for organisations in the industry, providing the start of an effective and efficient solution to enable the automation of environmental performance data transfer across different food and drink businesses. This will help manufacturers communicate their environmental performance that goes beyond legal compliance, while also seeking to tackle greenwashing and align with key work in other areas such as green taxonomy. These metrics seek to incentivise companies toward greener manufacturing processes and business operations, helping to tackle climate change in key areas such as greenhouse gas reduction and resource efficiency.

SEEBEYOND was a collaborative project between the Environment Agency, University of Cambridge, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, British Standards Institute and WRAP. This was made possible by a grant from the £3.7 million Regulators’ Pioneer Fund launched by BEIS. The fund enables UK regulators and local authorities to help create a UK regulatory environment that unleashes innovation and makes the UK the best place to start and grow a business. It has received £195,000 of funding from BEIS through the Regulators’ Pioneer Fund.

As a regulator we also have an important role to play in encouraging businesses to recognise that socially vulnerable groups will be the ones most severely affected by an accident or permit non-compliance if regulated activities are not sufficiently well-adapted for a changing climate.

Since 2019, businesses applying for new, bespoke waste or installations permits for some industrial activities must complete a climate change risk assessment. 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. We have produced a series of industry sector examples to help those we regulate with these risk assessments. We are learning from this approach and intend to integrate our requirements into management systems across the EPR regime.

We are currently running several pilot projects seeking to explore the implications of building adaptation into regulated businesses. Much of this work is focussed on the international standard on Adaptation to Climate Change, ISO14090. For example, we have been working with Scottish Environment Protection Agency and 9 companies from England and Scotland to carry out a pilot helping businesses review their own levels of preparedness, and to see how adoption of ISO 14090 could help them. The pilot will help inform the development of new tools and support for our future engagement with industry, other regulators, and partners.

Case study: Supporting industry adaptation to climate change

We are currently supporting a large waste installation site through the permit variation process to add a new cooling and odour control system to their refuse derived fuel processing shed.

Processing machinery generates lots of heat, and the shed must be kept closed to contain odour and minimise noise. During summer months the temperature of the shed regularly exceeds 30°C and it is increasingly warm inside in winter. This makes working conditions difficult and increases odour generation meaning the odour control system cannot function as designed.

The proposed biomass powered heat exchange system will cool the building to around 5°C throughout the year. This will allow for a consistent temperature with the intention of reducing odour generation and improving working conditions.

5.3 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 with either the Health and Safety Executive or the Office for Nuclear Regulation.

The wide-ranging risk control measures include those associated with natural hazards, such as extreme weather events and managing changes safely. Changes at COMAH sites associated with the transition to net zero are included.

Members of the COMAH strategic forum, comprising industry and regulators, have been considering how major hazard sites may need to change to meet the UK’s net zero targets, and how these changes may need new ways to manage them safely. This collaborative approach with competent authority partners and industry will help to meet the challenges of the net zero transition while continuing to protect people and the environment from serious harm from major accidents.

Case study: Our COMAH work starts before sites are even built

In the north-east of England 2 giga-factories are being developed to manufacture car batteries. The sites represent significant economic benefit to the area and with transport being a major contributor of greenhouse gases, the companies will be at the forefront of developing technologies to enable the country to reach our net zero goals. We have checked that the companies are assessing risks to people and the environment and planning the construction of the sites in a way that will prevent major accidents and reduce potential harm. We’ve also worked with the fire service, local authorities and Newcastle University to share understanding of the safety and environmental risks from battery manufacture and support preparedness for emergency response.

During 2021, we worked with partners from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to develop a brochure to raise awareness of the impact of natural hazards on hazardous installations and the challenges associated with their management, including within a changing climate.

5.4 Greenhouse gas emissions

Emissions of greenhouse gases from the businesses we regulate under EPR are 50% lower than in 2010, and 37% lower than in 2015. The emissions from these sites contribute 31% 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
2021 54 39 93
2020 50.1 43.7 93.7
2019 56.9 49.4 106.3
2018 64 51.8 115.9
2017 66.1 52.1 118.3
2016 68.7 49.9 118.5
2015 89 57.8 146.8

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 in EPR, and more energy being generated from renewable sources, reducing the amount needed from fossil fuels.

Greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector that we regulate increased by 7% between 2020 and 2021, following a decrease of 12% between 2019 and 2020. This increase in 2021 was due to the lifting of pandemic restrictions, with greater demand for electricity and fuels, but also an increase in the amount of fossil fuels in the fuel mix used to generate power. This increase in emissions from fossil fuel use is contrary to long term trends (BEIS, 2022).

Low-carbon sources generated more than half of UK electricity in 2021, including 19% from wind, 14% from nuclear, 12% from biomass and 4% from solar. However, the UK’s nuclear output fell by 9% in 2021 – its lowest level since 1982 – due to retirements and outages at the UK’s ageing reactors. Wind generation also fell by 15% in 2021.

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.

Methane emissions

In 2021, all landfills that we permit (both closed and operational), and which meet the requirements of EPR, released 112,000 tonnes of methane to air. This excludes emissions from the many pre-Landfill Directive landfills that are now closed but remain permitted. This accounts for 89% of all methane emissions reported from the sites we regulate, and about 10% of total methane emissions in England.

Methane emissions from the landfill sector have decreased by 52% since 2010, 42% since 2015, and by 10% between 2020 and 2021. This reduction in emissions is largely due to the implementation of the Landfill Directive. This diverted biodegradable waste away from landfill and led to a reduction in the number of operational sites. As these sites were closed and capped, collection of landfill gas improved. 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
2021 112.2 14.3 126.5
2020 125.2 16.4 141.5
2019 142.7 20.5 163.2
2018 149.5 20 169.5
2017 169.7 19.7 189.4
2016 184.7 21.1 205.8
2015 194.4 23.8 218.2

Farming contributes 43% of methane emissions in England. The majority of this comes from livestock. Emissions from the intensive pig and poultry farming sites that we regulate contribute 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.

5.5 New nuclear power

Nuclear power stations generate low carbon electricity and in 2020 provided about 16% of total electricity generated in the UK. 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 forms part of the government’s strategy to help ensure that we continue to have secure supplies of low carbon energy and to achieve net zero by 2050.

In 2021 we:

  • continued our regulation of radioactive substances in the nuclear and non-nuclear sectors throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, applying a mix of in-person inspection and increasing our remote activities
  • 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
  • presented evidence at an appeal heard by Planning Inspectorate on behalf of the Secretary of State on our deemed refusal of an application to remove the requirement for an acoustic fish deterrent from the environmental permit for Hinkley Point C – our assessment could not conclude that there would not be adverse effects on the protected habitats from granting the variation
  • provided advice on environmental permitting and planning matters on proposals for the Sizewell C power station
  • launched a virtual public consultation for the Generic Design Assessment of the UK HPR 1000 reactor design – this included our remote attendance at 9 events with external stakeholders
  • 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, advanced modular reactors and fusion
  • responded to the call for evidence seeking views on the government’s preference to explore the potential of high temperature gas reactors for the Advanced Modular Reactor Research Development and Demonstration (AMR RD&D) programme
  • attended several funded regulatory engagement sessions with developers of small modular reactors who are interested in commencing a generic design assessment in the near future – this assists regulators in building their knowledge of the design and assists the reactor developer by providing information on the Generic Design Assessment process and the nuclear regulatory framework

5.6 Fusion power

Fusion is the process which occurs at the centre of stars. It is the source of light and heat emitted by the sun. When the nuclei of 2 light elements are ‘fused’, they form a heavier element and release excess energy. There is increasing interest in developing fusion energy in the UK as a future safe and reliable low carbon energy source.

In 2021 we:

  • provided evidence and views to the Regulatory Horizons Council to support the production of their report on fusion energy regulation
  • provided data and evidence to BEIS for the Towards Fusion Energy green paper and strategy – we responded to the associated consultation seeking views on the regulatory framework for fusion energy

5.7 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 (Environment Agency, 2020).

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.

Our National Framework for Water Resources sets out the long term water needs for England. It marks a shift to strategic regional planning, outlining expectations for 5 regional water resource planning groups to develop complementary, strategic, multi-sector water resource plans, that in combination will meet the national need for water.

During 2021, we supported these water resource planning groups as they progressed development of their regional plans. We helped ensure the plans selected the best value options for meeting future public water supply need and formed a coherent national picture. Draft plans will be consulted on in 2022 and will be reflected in the statutory water resources management plans submitted by water companies.

The Regulators’ Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development (RAPID) was formed to help accelerate the development of new water infrastructure and analyse the feasibility of nationally strategic supply schemes. The joint team, made up of the 3 water regulators Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, has identified 18 strategic water supply infrastructure schemes to help ensure timely delivery of new supply options.

Water companies in England have a statutory duty to produce a water resources management plan and a drought plan every 5 years. We review these plans to ensure that companies can meet demand and protect the environment in the long term, and during dry weather. We advise government on whether the plans are fit for purpose.

The latest drought plans were published for consultation in 2021 and will be published as final versions in 2022. The next water resources management plans will be subject to consultation 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.

Sustainable abstraction

We lead on managing 2 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.

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 a fifth of surface waters, reducing water levels and damaging wildlife.

Our Restoring Sustainable Abstraction programme, which started in 2008, is now 86% complete. We have changed 324 abstraction licences to make them more sustainable, returning 49 billion litres of water a year to the environment. This is equivalent to supplying the cities of Liverpool and Newcastle combined with water every year.

Since 2017, through reviewing, changing and revoking abstraction licences, we have removed the risk of the potential abstraction of 1.7 trillion litres of water, reducing the risk to the environment and making more water available to those who need it. This is equivalent to supplying a city the size of London with water for 2 years.

We have completed 6 priority catchments trialling new innovative approaches and collaborative working for water resources. The results were published in June 2022 in updated local abstraction licensing strategies.

Case study: East Suffolk priority catchment

We have been working with Suffolk County Council, Felixstowe Hydrocycle Limited and the University of East Anglia on an innovative new project to reuse water drained from agricultural fields in the Kingsfleet catchment.

By pumping the water inland through a 12km pipeline, the water has become available for local farmers to irrigate food growing on their land. In the future, this ‘reused water’ could potentially be used in the public water supply.

As well as providing a sustainable source of water for local businesses, the project is ensuring coastal ecosystems and wildlife can benefit by having drainage water rerouted away from sensitive environments. Farmers are improving the resilience of their businesses to climate change, and we are making a better use of a valuable resource.

Land use in the future must be designed to achieve multiple benefits for people and wildlife, and also become resilient to climate change. The way of achieving this is through nature based solutions – ways of working with natural processes to provide benefits to people and nature. Working with natural processes provides adaptation benefits, such as flood mitigation and the protection of water resources. Freshwater ecosystems, including wetlands, are a crucial part of the water supply and need to be in good condition in order to provide services such as filtration and water storage.

6. Healthy air, land and water

One of our aims is to protect and improve the environment for people and wildlife. We work with 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 (Marmot and others, 2020).

We work to try and ensure:

  • communities are safe from industrial accidents, protected and resilient to environmental hazards, pollution (including noise and odour pollution) and natural threats
  • air emissions from industries we regulate 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 in
  • 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 discharge of radioactive waste

6.1 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 (least serious), according to their effects on air, land and water.

In 2021 there were:

  • 64 category 1 incidents
  • 497 category 2 incidents
  • 10,992 category 3 incidents
  • 5,048 category 4 incidents

A category 1 incident has a serious, extensive or persistent effect 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 amenity issues (including odour and noise) affecting human health. Category 2 incidents have a lesser, yet significant effect.

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. 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.

We do not hesitate to take enforcement action, including prosecution where appropriate, against operators who cause pollution incidents. The cost to an operator of a pollution incident can be substantial. Enforcement undertakings can also play an important part in changing and improving how operators respond to a pollution incident.

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.

Since 2019 the number of annual incidents has increased, reversing the previously declining 5-year moving average trend. 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 2021

Year Serious pollution incidents per year 5-year moving average
2021 561 509
2020 563 498
2019 467 485
2018 533 515
2017 419 546
2016 508 562
2015 499 570

Most serious pollution incidents are usually reported by members of the public. In 2021, the public reported 375 (67%) of the 561 serious pollution incidents.

To reduce serious pollution incidents, there must be vigilance and action from all businesses, not just those we permit. Of the 561 incidents in 2021, 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, 2015 to 2021

Year Non-permitted activities Activities with permits Unidentified source
2021 281 191 89
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 561 serious incidents in 2021:

  • 17% were caused by permitted or exempt waste management activities
  • 16% were attributed to illegal waste activities
  • 11% were caused by water and sewerage companies
  • 10% were caused by farming activities

The figure for water and sewerage companies is for the 9 main water and sewerage companies in England, and for incidents affecting the water environment (not land or air) under their Water Industry Act responsibilities. Further information is in our report on the Environmental performance of the water and sewerage companies in 2021.

EPR industrial operators with 4 or more reported separate serious pollution incidents in 2021

Operator Site Sector Number of serious incidents
Walleys Quarry Landfill Ltd (formerly Red Industries RM Ltd) Walleys Quarry Landfill Landfill 12
Infinity Metals Limited Vickersdale Works Waste treatment: metals recycling 11
Minteq UK Limited Specialty Minerals Lifford Cement and minerals: lime 7
Anti-Waste Limited Buckden North Landfill Landfill 6
Aireborough Skip Hire Limited Milners Road Waste treatment: non hazardous 5
Biowise Limited Albion Lane Composting Facility Biowaste treatment 5
Lafarge Cauldon Limited Cauldon Cement Plant Cement and minerals: cement 5
Sims Group UK Limited Pepper Road, Reservoir Road, Long Marston Waste treatment: metals recycling 5
Dairy Crest Limited Davidstow Creamery Food and drink 4
Opes MRF 2013 Limited Finmere Quarry Landfill Landfill 4

Data on poorly performing operators or companies in this report, gives a snapshot in time. We will have ongoing investigations, leading to enforcement action in most cases. For example, Dairy Crest Limited were recently fined £1.5 million for the poor management of liquid waste, odour and environmental reporting at its Davidstow Creamery. At Walleys Quarry landfill, we continue to robustly regulate and monitor the site to ensure the companies operating at the site remain on track to deliver specified improvements.

Waste management

We recorded 97 serious pollution incidents caused by waste management activities in 2021.

There were 50 serious incidents caused by the waste treatment sector, an increase on the 38 incidents in 2020. Of these 50 incidents, 30 were noise related. One individual operator (Infinity Metals Limited) was responsible for 11 of these noise incidents.

There were 26 serious incidents caused by the landfill sector in 2021, compared to 33 in 2020. Of these 26 landfill incidents, 25 were odour related. Just 3 individual sites caused 22 of these incidents, with one site (Walleys Quarry) responsible for 12 incidents.

Serious pollution incidents caused by waste management activities, 2015 to 2021

Year Waste treatment Landfill Biowaste Other waste activities Total
2021 50 26 19 2 97
2020 38 33 12 8 91
2019 33 11 16 10 70
2018 49 16 11 3 79
2017 42 7 15 1 65
2016 42 7 25 6 80
2015 57 14 46 3 120

Odour

Odour incidents caused by industrial activities we permit have increased since 2015. Odour is a major cause of public complaints and can have a significant negative effect on quality of life. People in affected communities report increased levels of health issues, including anxiety and stress-related illness (Hayes J.E and others, 2014).

Odour incidents also carry considerable reputational risk for the sectors involved. 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 2021, we received 58,850 odour reports. From these reports, we identified 52 serious pollution incidents, of which 48 were at sites we regulate.

Serious pollution incidents involving odour and caused by activities we permit

Year Biowaste treatment Landfill Food and drink Agriculture Other sectors Total
2021 13 25 7 0 7 52
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

The number of odour incidents caused by the landfill and deposit for recovery sector increased significantly in 2020 and remained high in 2021. While recognising that a small number of sites can cause a disproportionately large number of serious odour incidents, we set up a Landfill Odour Task and Finish Group in 2021 to identify further measures that could be taken to prevent sites becoming problematic. In addition, our national odour team has increased odour sensitivity awareness training and sector specific training where required. In 2021, the team supported area regulatory teams with odour issues at 40 permitted sites. This ranged from giving advice and guidance to operators to prosecutions for more serious offences.

Noise

Long term exposure to environmental noise can have significant impacts on physical and mental health and wellbeing.

In 2021, industrial sites we regulate caused 50 serious noise pollution incidents – an increase on the 31 incidents in 2020. Over half of these were caused by sites managing waste. Just 6 individual sites were responsible for 68% of these serious noise pollution incidents.

To reduce such incidents, we have developed and delivered a range of noise training modules, to better equip our regulatory officers to address noise issues at individual sites. Our new guidance on noise and vibration management gives a clearer structure to both permitting officers and permit applicants on what we expect in a noise impact assessment and will help us make more effective regulatory decisions

Illegal waste activities

We recorded 87 serious incidents caused by illegal waste activities in 2021, compared with 96 incidents in 2020, and 79 incidents in 2019. Over half of these were attributed to illegal waste sites.

Water and sewerage companies

In 2021, there were 62 serious water quality pollution incidents from the sewerage and water supply assets of the 9 water and sewerage companies operating in England. This was worse than the 44 in 2020 and the highest number since 2013.

Serious pollution incidents caused by water and sewerage companies, 2015 to 2021

Year Serious pollution incidents
2021 62
2020 44
2019 52
2018 56
2017 52
2016 57
2015 59

Water companies with 4 or more reported separate serious pollution incidents in 2021

Operator No of serious incidents Performance star rating out of 4 (1 is poor performing and 4 is industry leading)
Anglian Water Services Limited 14 2 stars
Thames Water Utilities Limited 12 2 stars
Southern Water Services Limited 12 1 star
South West Water Limited 8 1 star
Yorkshire Water Services Limited 5 2 stars
Wessex Water Service Limited 5 2 stars
Severn Trent Water Limited 4 4 stars

More information can be found in our Environmental performance of the water and sewerage companies in 2021.

Farming activities

In 2021, farming activities caused 54 serious pollution incidents, compared with 58 in 2020. Most (76%) were caused by containment and control failures. This slight decrease is the result of some intensive farming sites with amenity issues coming back into compliance. However, the overall figure is still higher than in 2019 when there were 42 incidents. Intensive pig and poultry farming, the only farming subsector we regulate under EPR, caused only 1 serious incident in 2021.

Half of farming incidents (50%) were caused by the dairy sector. 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. Based on our inspection evidence, over the last 2 years we still find compliance overall is low, with particular concerns around slurry storage and slurry management. 

Serious pollution incidents caused by dairy farming, 2015 to 2021

Year Serious incidents per year 5-year moving average of serious incidents
2021 27 29
2020 25 31
2019 22 36
2018 29 39
2017 40 42
2016 41 42
2015 49 38

6.2 Cleaner air

Since the middle of the 20th century, many of the worst impacts of air pollution have been addressed through regulatory frameworks, investment by industry in cleaner processes and a shift in the fuel mix towards cleaner forms of energy. However, exposure to air pollution is one the UK’s biggest public health challenges, shortening lifespans and damaging quality of life for many people. It also harms the natural environment, affecting our waterways, biodiversity and crop yields (Defra, 2019).

Changes made at the sites we regulate have achieved significant reductions of sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and small particulate matter (PM10).

Damage costs are a simple way to value changes in air pollution. They estimate the cost to society of a change in emissions of different pollutants. Using Defra damage costs, we can approximate the value of the effect of reductions in emissions from industry we regulate. For example, reductions in emissions from regulated sites between 2020 and 2021 of SOx, NOx and PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) ​present reduced damage costs of an estimated £118 million, £60 million and £5 million respectively.

Air pollution is caused by the combustion of fuels for heat and power, industrial processes, manufacturing, transport and agriculture. 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. Particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide alone have been estimated to have health costs of around £22.6 billion every year.

Environment Agency analysis has found that people who are exposed to the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulates are more likely to live in deprived areas of England (Environment Agency, 2021).

Air pollution also has negative effects on habitats, ecosystems, plants and animals. In 2019, 97% of the area of nitrogen sensitive habitat in England had more nitrogen deposition than it can cope with effectively (Rowe E.C and others, 2022).

There are legally binding international targets to reduce emissions of 5 damaging air pollutants by 2020 and 2030. They apply to NOx, sulphur dioxide (SO2), fine particles (PM2.5), ammonia, and non-methane volatile organic compounds. The Clean Air Strategy 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.

The impacts of air pollution are not equally distributed and disproportionately affect some groups more than others. These include the young and older people, those living in areas of high deprivation, those with existing health inequalities and those working in high exposure jobs. The Chief Medical Officer summed up the situation in 2017 when stating that “deprived communities faced a ‘triple jeopardy’ of higher exposure to air pollution, a greater burden of poor health, and a greater susceptibility to the impact of pollution.”

We have been leading a unique, innovative, collaborative project gathering the ‘lived experience’ of individuals and communities most affected by air quality inequalities and inequities. The project has generated resources to support those most affected, as well as supporting government and third sector partner collaborations. It has made recommendations for pilot interventions and created the Air Quality Inequalities Network, which is an online knowledge sharing platform that facilitates connections and collaborative working. The work has also informed policy and guidance, including the updated local air quality management guidance and the review of the Air Quality Strategy.

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.

We introduced an air quality corporate scorecard measure in 2021 to 2022, to record our performance and effectiveness in decreasing atmospheric emissions from our regulated industries. We piloted the measure by looking at emissions from the refineries sector and are expanding the measure to cover emissions from a wider number of sectors. Although emissions will be linked to levels of industrial production as well as abatement measures for individual facilities, the scorecard measure will provide us with a focus for our emission control activities.

NOx and SOx

Half of all NOx emissions in England in 2019 came from transport and almost a third came from energy industries and industrial combustion. The businesses we regulate under EPR contribute about 14% of all NOx emissions in England. Since 2010, NOx emissions from these industries have dropped by 72%, and since 2015 they’ve dropped by 62%.

NOx emissions to air from sites with permits, 2015 to 2021 (thousand tonnes)

Year Combustion (power) All other industry with permits Total
2021 27.2 37.7 64.9
2020 29.7 43.5 73.3
2019 33.6 53.1 86.8
2018 45.5 55.2 100.7
2017 54.1 53.6 107.7
2016 52.8 56.1 108.9
2015 107.9 61.2 169.2

Over half of SOx emissions in England in 2019 came from energy industries and industrial combustion and processes. Nearly a third came from residential, commercial and public sector combustion. The businesses we regulate under EPR contribute about 32% of SOx emissions in England. Emissions of SOx from these industries have decreased by 90% since 2010, and 81% since 2015.

SOx emissions to air from sites with permits, 2015 to 2021 (thousand tonnes)

Year Combustion (power) All other industry with permits Total
2021 4.6 15.9 20.5
2020 6.8 21.8 28.6
2019 6.2 32.3 38.5
2018 15.8 34.8 50.6
2017 22.3 38.8 61.1
2016 22.1 37.4 59.5
2015 64.1 45.9 110

Significant contributions to the emissions reductions achieved so far include:

PM10

PM10 is small particulate matter less than 10 micrometres in size, such as dusts, smoke particles and pollens, which can be breathed deeply into the lungs. The main sources of PM10 emissions in England in 2019 were industrial combustion and processes (42%) and residential, commercial and public sector combustion (29%). Transport contributed 14%.

The businesses we regulate under EPR contribute about 8% of all PM10 emissions in England. Most of this (74%) comes from intensive pig and poultry farming. Since 2010, PM10 emissions from all the industries we permit have decreased by 52%, and since 2015 have decreased by 54%. The amount of PM10 emitted from intensive farming has changed little over the past 10 years but did fall by 8% between 2020 and 2021.

Small particulate matter is not a single pollutant. It is made up of a wide variety of chemical compounds and materials, classified by size. The Clean Air Strategy proposes an ambitious, long-term target to reduce people’s exposure to PM2.5 as well as PM10. PM2.5 is small particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres in size – smaller than PM10. It is highly respirable and able to get very deep into the lungs. An estimated 5% of total mortality in England can be attributed to small particulate matter (PM2.5).

PM10 emissions to air from sites with permits, 2015 to 2021 (thousand tonnes)

Year Intensive farming Combustion (power) Metals (ferrous) All other industry with permits Total
2021 5.5 0.5 0.4 1 7.4
2020 6 0.7 0.4 1.1 8.2
2019 6.1 0.8 2.2 1 10.1
2018 6.4 1 2.6 1.8 11.9
2017 6.2 1.4 3 1.7 12.3
2016 6.2 1.5 3.3 1.6 12.5
2015 6.2 3.2 4.6 2 16

Ammonia

Farming is the biggest contributor to this country’s total ammonia emissions. In 2019, 85% of all ammonia emissions in England were from farming. Farms not required to hold a permit under EPR emitted 93% of ammonia emissions from farming in 2019.

The businesses that we regulate under EPR contribute about 8% of all ammonia emissions in England. Most of this comes from intensive pig and poultry farming. There was a 6% reduction in ammonia emissions from intensive farming between 2020 and 2021, continuing a downward trend in these emissions since 2018.

Ammonia combines with other pollutants in the atmosphere to form secondary particulate matter, including PM2.5. This particulate matter can be transported across large distances, with associated health effects on a wide population (Environment Agency, 2018). Ammonia can also cause significant long-term harm to sensitive habitats.

Ammonia emissions to air from sites with permits, 2015 to 2021 (thousand tonnes)

Year Intensive farming Chemicals All other industry with permits Total
2021 9.5 1.2 0.8 11.6
2020 10.1 1.4 1.1 12.6
2019 10.9 1.8 1.2 13.9
2018 11.7 1.2 1 13.9
2017 11 1.7 1 13.7
2016 10.9 1.5 1 13.5
2015 10.7 1.1 1.2 13

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 2019. These emissions come from both domestic and industrial solvent applications. Other sources of NMVOCs include agriculture and fugitive emissions from fuels.

The businesses we regulate under EPR contribute just 4% of all NMVOCs emissions in England. Emissions of NMVOCs from these sites have decreased by 38% since 2010, and 23% since 2015. The refineries and fuel sites we regulate contribute 3% of the total NMVOC emissions in England.

NMVOC emissions to air from sites with permits, 2015 to 2021 (thousand tonnes)

Year Cement and minerals Chemicals Refineries and fuel All other industry Total emissions
2021 0.9 4.8 12.4 2.3 20.4
2020 0.9 5.4 12.6 2.1 21.1
2019 1.2 5.9 13.9 2.6 23.6
2018 1.1 5.7 14.8 2.9 24.5
2017 2.4 5.3 20 3.6 31.3
2016 1.4 5.7 15.5 3.6 26.3
2015 1.2 5.5 16.3 3.5 26.5

6.3 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 for all, working in conjunction with Ofwat and the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Land use activities, both rural and urban, can contribute to poor water quality through run-off and diffuse sources containing chemicals, nutrients, faecal matter and soils or sediments.

Nature based solutions are a crucial tool in restoring nature and achieving multiple benefits for land and water environments. Maintaining high levels of biodiversity supports ecosystem resilience. Healthy functioning ecosystems, with their full complement of species, support ecological processes and services.

With a growing population, domestic food demand will increase. Past increases in agricultural production have largely been at the expense of nature. Looking forward, land and water need to be managed in a more sustainable, inter-connected way. Nature-friendly approaches such as regenerative agriculture, provides opportunities for managing land, with major emphasis on nature recovery, the provision of ecosystem services and achieving net zero while supporting rural economies.

Soil is an important natural capital resource, providing many essential services. Maintaining healthy soils can contribute to carbon storage, support sustainable food production, and reduce the risk of flooding by absorbing water. Compaction and the loss of organic carbon are serious threats to soil health. They affect agricultural production and our resilience to climate change. Contamination of soils is often thought to be a thing of the past, but new and emerging chemicals and waste management practices bring new regulatory challenges and environmental risks (Environment Agency, 2021).

Water quality

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. Environmental improvements have resulted in large reductions in ammonia, biochemical oxygen demand (BOD, a measure of organic pollution), and phosphorus from sewage treatment works discharged to rivers.

Loads discharged to rivers from water company sewage treatment works in England and Wales, 1995 to 2027

Year BOD Ammonia Phosphorus
2027 estimate 16.4 3.1 2.7
2020 16.6 3.3 6.75
2015 19.2 3.6 8.6
2010 22.4 5.4 10.6
2005 25.2 7.7 12.8
2000 27.1 8.2 16.7
1995 36.7 16.2 21.4

Our analysis of long-term trends in river quality shows that:

  • ammonia concentrations at the low end of major rivers across England have reduced to about 15% of average concentrations in 1990
  • BOD concentrations have reduced to 55 to 60% of average levels in 1990
  • phosphorus concentrations have reduced to 15 to 20% of average concentrations in 1990

We’ve also found that the richness of invertebrate communities in English rivers, that is, the number of invertebrate families present, increased from 1991 to 2005 overall, and to 2010 in urban rivers. No increase was detected after that, but the prevalence of invertebrates that are intolerant of pollution increased over the whole period from 1991 to 2019. Interestingly, improving biological trends are the opposite of those expected under a warming climate, suggesting water quality gains are offsetting climate change impacts (Environment Agency, 2021).

Despite this good progress we are still seeing too much pollution from a number of sources, including nutrients from agriculture and phosphorus from sewage treatment works. In 2019, the last year of assessment, 79% of the elements we monitor in fresh water met environmental quality standards, but this equates to only 14% of rivers meeting good ecological status under the Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) Regulations. 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.

The government’s 25 Year Environment Plan’s ambition is for three quarters of waters to be close to their natural state.

Pollution from agricultural activities

In 2019, agriculture and rural land management accounted for around 40% of water bodies not reaching good ecological status.

However, in 2021 we did receive additional funding from government to increase our farming inspections. We also invested further through our Project TARA (Testing Approaches to Regulation of Agriculture), a programme testing different and innovative ways to regulate farming.

In 2021, we carried out 721 inspections on 693 farms, more than double the number in 2020. We issued 976 improvement actions, of which 413 have been verified as completed. At 52% of inspections, we found non-compliance with the Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil (SSAFO) regulations, which govern slurry and silage storage infrastructure. At 43% of inspections, we found non-compliance with at least one of the Farming Rules for Water. Failure to have the current nutrient planning and soil tests under Rule 1 were the most recurring breaches identified. Our response has been to advise and guide farmers, using enforcement as a last resort.

We have also established a new remote sensing team that is developing methods of remotely assessing compliance with agricultural regulations. For example, using satellite imagery to identify ground that is poached (where the land is trampled and muddy) or bare and is likely to cause pollution.

Where we have been able to apply our advice-led approach to regulation of agriculture it has resulted in positive environmental outcomes, focused operator behaviour and enabled investment in farm infrastructure.

Chemical pollutants

No surface water bodies met the criteria for achieving good chemical status in 2019 (the last year of assessment), compared to 97% passing in 2016. This significant change was 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
  • PFOS (perfluoroctanesulfonate) 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. It supplies around a third of the country’s drinking water.

Drinking water protected areas

We must protect our drinking supplies. We ensure they are not polluted and are resilient to future pressures and climate change. The rivers, lakes and groundwater that supply water for human consumption are identified as drinking water protected areas. This includes public drinking water supplied by water companies to their customers, and private water supplies for domestic dwellings or the food and drink industry.

Many drinking water sources are deteriorating because of pollution from pesticides, nitrates from fertilisers, other chemicals and micro-organisms. This can be exacerbated by pressure from future development, population growth and climate change. Removal of pollutants from water increases costs at water treatment works. Nitrate and pesticides not taken up by crops also have economic costs for farmers.

In England:

  • 240 of the 450 surface water drinking water protected areas (53%) are ‘at risk’ of deterioration
  • 127 of the 271 groundwater drinking water protected areas (47%) are ‘at risk’ of deterioration and 71 are not meeting good chemical status

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. Safeguard zones focus pollution prevention and regulatory actions where they are most needed.

Our report Drinking water protected areas: challenges for the water environment sets out current and future issues for drinking waters, with a review of current measures to address the challenges.

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 in shorter bursts, and water infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth. We are now seeing too much sewage pollution from these storm overflow discharges.

Our event duration monitoring data provides a robust and consistent way of monitoring how often and for how long water and sewerage companies use their storm overflows. The data underpins our planning, compliance and enforcement work.

Around 12,700 (89%) of England’s 14,470 storm overflows now have EDM monitors, with the remainder due to be installed by the end of 2023. The permits we issue to water companies legally oblige them to monitor and report EDM data from their storm overflows.

In 2021, there were over 370,000 sewage discharges, totalling over 2.6 million hours. 87% of storm overflows had a least one spill, with 5% spilling more than 100 times.

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 by 2025. Further improvements are being planned for 2025 to 2030.

The data has also been central to informing Defra’s consultation on its Storm Overflow Reduction Plan. The plan will set clear and enforceable targets that the water industry must meet.

We want to see the end of damaging pollution that storm overflows cause. We are part of the Storm Overflows Taskforce, which brings together government, the water industry, regulators and environmental non-government organisations, with a remit to explore policy options that reduce the occurrence of storm overflow spills and any harm that is caused. The taskforce commissioned the storm overflow evidence project, a national assessment published in 2021, which provides a more detailed understanding of the costs and benefits of different policies and scenarios for limiting storm overflow discharges.

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.

In 2021, a record 99% of bathing waters in England met or exceeded the minimum quality standard. Over 70% achieved an excellent standard. This compares with 98.3% passing the required standards in 2019 and is the highest number since new standards were introduced in 2015.

In May 2021, a section of the River Wharfe at Ilkley in Yorkshire was added to the list of bathing waters in England. This is the first stretch of river to be designated as a bathing water site. Water quality at the site was rated as poor during the 2021 bathing season.

A designation is an important first step towards longer-term water quality improvement. It will take time to identify how to meet the required bathing water standard, alongside the financial investment and co-operation needed to make it happen. Bringing rivers up to bathing water standards will be a challenge and places greater responsibility on farmers, water companies and communities. We are working hard with all those who want to be a part of the solution.

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. 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.

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 £5.2 billion in the natural environment between 2020 and 2025.

6.4 Radioactive substances

Radioactive substances and radiation have many beneficial uses including their use in medicine, diagnostics and in low carbon power generation. Our regulation enables the delivery of these benefits and their contribution to sustainable development while protecting people and the environment.

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 (RIFE) report. This independent programme is an important part of our regulation and fulfils a vital reassurance role. The 2021 RIFE report showed that there were no major changes in radioactivity levels in 2020 and radiation exposure of the public from the permitted discharge of radioactive waste continued to be below legal limits.

Radiological assessment

We issued an updated version of our initial radiological assessment tool (IRAT) in January 2021. We use IRAT as part of our decision-making process when assessing applications for the discharge of radioactive waste into the environment. IRAT was first developed in 2006 and has now been revised to use up-to-date models and data, include additional radionuclides and exposure groups and formally incorporate an assessment of dose rates to wildlife. The associated user guide and methodology report are awaiting publication on GOV.UK.

Radioactive waste management

In December 2021, we published our annual report that summarises our work related to the geological disposal of radioactive waste. This is joint report with the Office for Nuclear Regulation.

Together with the Office for Nuclear Regulation, Natural Resources Wales and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, we continue to provide regulatory input to the BEIS ‘Implementing Geological Disposal’ programme to explain our regulatory role, requirements and processes.

Two Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) working groups formed in West Cumbria during 2020/21 (Copeland GDF Working Group and Allerdale GDF Working Group) from which 3 community partnerships have been established. In October 2021, another working group launched in Theddlethorpe, Lincolnshire, and formed a community partnership in 2022.

Case study: Regulation of Sellafield Limited, Cumbria

Sellafield is a large and complex site and ranks as one of Europe’s largest industrial complexes, managing more radioactive waste in one place than any other nuclear facility in the world.

Working with Sellafield Limited we have been exploring how we can become better aligned on strategic environmental outcomes for the Sellafield site. Pilot studies have increased our collective understanding of what sustainable waste and asset management mean in practice and how Sellafield could progress in this direction.

Following a leak of radioactive material from a storage silo, we varied the environmental permit to introduce improvement requirements. This has resulted in a new programme being set up within Sellafield to deliver their protective response, including responding to those improvement requirements.

We undertook assessment work to enable retrievals of highly radioactive waste from 2 legacy storage facilities and to ensure that the work can be undertaken in compliance with permit requirements. Waste retrievals help to reduce the overall hazard.

As a result of previous enforcement action, Sellafield Limited completed its site wide inspection of all external ventilation systems in November 2021. This has generated many recommendations and has identified a number of non-compliances over the last few years. Our attention has now turned to ensuring Sellafield Limited completes the recommendations and aligns its ventilation asset management arrangements with best practice.

7. Growth and a sustainable future

The Net Zero Strategy expands on the aspirations of the Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy to grow the UK’s economy in a clean and sustainable manner through investing in and growing a cleaner economy. 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. Economic growth must also be climate resilient to be sustainable and deliver shifts to new technologies, energy security and sustainable resource use.

We want to support businesses, giving them the confidence to invest, innovate and grow. Clean growth is an opportunity for innovation. Stimulating innovation through smarter regulation, earned recognition and going beyond compliance helps the environment and businesses. The amount and nature of regulation should be proportionate to the risk of the activity being regulated.

We want the businesses we regulate 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. We offer a free basic pre-application service for applicants with a chargeable enhanced service for those who want it. 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.

7.1 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.

Research by the Green Alliance found that creating a circular economy will not only help reduce carbon emissions but also create 450,000 jobs in the UK by 2035.

7.2 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

By encouraging regulated businesses to think differently about scarce resources we are helping to integrate climate adaptation and mitigation thinking into their manufacturing processes.

Case study: Kimberly-Clark tissue paper production, Barrow

The Kimberly-Clark site in Barrow produces 120,000 tonnes of tissue paper per year. Working with them during their recent investment in a new tissue machine and converting line has reduced water and energy use by 50 to 70%, and they are now able to reuse more fibres within the paper-making process.

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. 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. We can help to reduce these through the use of fire prevention plans and odour management plans.

Waste management inputs, 2015 to 2021 (million tonnes)

Year Treatment Transfer Landfill
2021 92 45 43
2020 87 46 40
2019 85 46 46
2018 82 46 44
2017 78 46 45
2016 72 47 45
2015 64 45 44

Waste from regulated industry

The total amount of waste produced by sites we regulate has largely plateaued over the past 10 years. Recovery rates have gradually increased over this period to a high of 77% in 2021.

Waste produced by sites with permits, 2015 to 2021 (million tonnes)

Year Waste produced by sites with permits (million tonnes)
2021 13.9
2020 14.8
2019 15.1
2018 14.8
2017 16.8
2016 15.4
2015 14

Waste recovered by sites with permits, 2015 to 2021 (%)

Year Waste recovered by sites with permits (%)
2021 77
2020 74
2019 74
2018 72
2017 68
2016 67
2015 65

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. Over the past 4 years, exports of notified waste have been reducing. In 2021, 2.1 million tonnes of notified waste was exported from England, compared to 3.4 million tonnes in 2019, and 4.3 million tonnes in 2018.

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.

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 confirm 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 2021, almost 3.3 million tonnes of this type of packaging waste was exported by accredited exporters in England. This is just slightly lower than the 3.4 million tonnes in 2020, and 3.7 million tonnes in 2019. We approved 5,431 applications from operators for overseas sites to receive packaging waste for reprocessing.

7.3 Waste crime

Waste crime in England is endemic. One of the goals in our EA2025 action plan is that by 2025, we will have cut waste crime and helped move England towards 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 the financial year 2018 to 2019.

The 2021, the National Waste Crime Survey estimated that only 25% of waste crimes are reported to us and that 18% of all waste is managed illegally at some point in the waste stream. That’s around 34 million tonnes of waste every year, enough to fill Wembley stadium 30 times. The more we look for incidents of non-compliance with waste regulations, the more waste crime we find.

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. It removes waste from the circular economy and can increase the demand for new resources and materials. Tackling this type of illegal activity is complex but very important. We know that investment in tackling waste crime delivers good value for money for the taxpayer. Understanding the full scale and effects of waste crime is an ongoing challenge to which we are committed.

In 2021, we produced our new strategy for tackling waste crime. We are undertaking more proactive and preventative activities aimed at targeting the criminals and deterring future offenders. We are developing our intelligence and data analysis capability to identify root causes and trends and working with partners to achieve joint objectives.

Based on the Home Office ‘4P’ model (prepare, prevent, protect, pursue) we:

  • prepare to fight waste crime, by gathering the evidence and intelligence necessary to do so
  • prevent waste crime, by seeking to deter or disrupt it before it takes place
  • protect the environment, communities and businesses from the harm it does, focusing on the crimes that do the most damage
  • pursue the criminals, focusing on those who act deliberately and do the most harm

We are part of the Joint Unit for Waste Crime, which has made tackling waste crime a multi-agency, collaborative approach. The unit shares intelligence and plans joint operations against criminals.

Case study: Working together to tackle waste crime

In April 2021, as part of a major investigation into an organised crime group dumping and burying thousands of tonnes of illegal waste at sites across the Midlands, we conducted a joint operation with the police to arrest the suspects. Five search warrants were executed at properties belonging to the group. Significant amounts of evidence and cash were recovered. All 5 suspects were arrested, and the police are also investigating other offences including firearms and drugs.

In the financial year 2021 to 2022, we brought 94 prosecutions against companies and individuals for waste crime offences. This resulted in total fines exceeding £6.2 million.

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 resources needed.

Illegal waste sites

At the end of March 2022, the number of active illegal waste sites was the lowest we have seen, with the number of high-risk sites lower than our target of 200. However, referrals from the public, through Crimestoppers, concerning the illegal disposal of waste have increased every year since 2017.

We acknowledge that there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the number of illegal waste sites. We should remain cautious in interpreting these numbers as the true number of sites is likely to be greater than that reported. Some sites will be unknown to us and in other instances, sites cannot be substantiated due to resource pressures. We are continuing our work to better understand the full scale of illegal waste sites.

Our research has shown that areas of higher deprivation, particularly deprived large urban areas, have a greater density of illegal waste sites than less deprived areas. We also found that illegal waste sites in more deprived areas were more likely to contain hazardous materials.

Illegal waste sites active at the end of the year, 2015/16 to 2021/22

Year All sites active at the end of the financial year High risk sites active at the end of the financial year
2021/22 419 188
2020/21 470 197
2019/20 544 238
2018/19 685 255
2017/18 673 267
2016/17 601 262
2015/16 622 273

New illegal waste sites found and illegal activity stopped, 2015/16 to 2021/22

Year New sites found Illegal activity stopped
2021/22 445 561
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 dumping

In the financial year 2021 to 2022 we dealt with 91 incidents of illegal dumping that were within our remit. We classified most of these incidents as category 3, having a minor effect 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 redevelopment 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 sometimes deliberately mis-described as recyclable materials.

We inspected 1,390 containers of waste in the financial year 2021 to 2022. Of these, 260 were returned to their site of loading which, combined with our regulatory intervention at waste sites, prevented the illegal export of over 19,000 tonnes of waste.

We continue to pursue those who blight the lives of overseas communities through illegal exports. We have introduced additional measures to tackle illegal exports. These include working closely with HM Revenue and Customs reviewing inconsistencies between customs information and packaging data and creating an investigations team to target serious offenders.

In 2021, a prosecution brought by us resulted in the courts fining an offender £1.5 million for breaking waste export law by shipping banned materials to developing countries.

7.4 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.

Our chemical compliance team delivers a credible, modern compliance strategy to underpin our work on controlling chemical risks. Work in 2021 included the analysis of the plastic cabling of string lights for short chain chlorinated paraffins. This highlighted 17 products failing to comply with the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) Regulation. We worked with businesses to ensure the products were removed from the marketplace and disposed of correctly.

In 2021, our new pan-area compliance team carried out 224 audits looking at POPs in waste electronics and electrical items. This has helped to ensure PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), which are a restricted POP, are being sent for destruction rather than contaminating recycled material.

We have been working with industry to raise awareness of the restrictions and legal obligations surrounding certain types of firefighting foams, such as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). We produced guidance that was distributed to over 25 trade associations, who then in turn sent it on to their members.

We have increased our focus on emerging substances, with the Prioritisation and Early Warning System for chemicals of emerging concern now operational. The system has to date screened 194 different emerging chemicals for the risk they pose to surface water, groundwater, soil, biota and sediment.

When an early warning is issued by the Prioritisation and Early Warning System, we then consider whether there is the need for additional regulatory interventions to be introduced. This involves considering a pollutant’s source-pathway-receptor conceptual model, the existing legislative framework that applies to the substance and what existing interventions both we and other regulators have in place. Where we find gaps, new activities are proposed and undertaken when resources allow.

7.5 Plastics

As a regulator, we work to prevent waste plastic entering the environment by cracking down on waste crime and poor waste management. We also aim to promote better environmental practices that result in a reduction of plastic waste.

In 2021, we continued our work to help understand the risks posed by plastics entering the environment and what this means for our regulatory control. We:

  • produced a research note on biodegradable and compostable plastic that has informed Defra’s policy thinking around household food waste collections
  • assisted Defra to commission projects on the measurement and characterisation of microplastics in river waters and sediments, and how to improve groundwater sampling and analysis techniques for plastics
  • developed best practice documents and educational materials to support a range of sectors to reduce avoidable plastic waste and encourage a circular economy approach
  • developed a Pixl Green Edge Award to engage school children with the issues of plastic waste, encouraging a better understanding of the challenges and solutions of plastic pollution in our environment
  • continued our work as a partner in the Interreg funded Preventing Plastic Pollution project, working with individuals, businesses and communities to reduce plastic consumption through adopting a more circular approach to waste

Working with Defra we are supporting farmers to follow Duty of Care and Waste Management (England and Wales) Regulations 2006, specifically to:

  • reduce incidents of illegal disposal of plastic farm waste by burning or burying
  • increase recycling rates by encouraging farmers to use registered waste carriers and schemes

Further examples of our regulatory work leading to a reduction in plastic pollution include:

  • permit requirements at biowaste sites to reduce feedstock and output plastic
  • working with local authorities to reduce plastic in separately collected food waste
  • increasing scrutiny of certified digestate and compost to ensure reduction of plastic material

Case study: Plastics and sustainability team

The plastics and sustainability team’s work fits within the wider Environment Agency business and government climate, resources and waste ambitions. To deliver on the aims of EA2025, the team collaborates with multiple internal and external partners to reduce avoidable plastic waste entering our ocean, taking a source to sea approach. This is done by:

  • supporting businesses to minimise their consumption of avoidable plastic waste and move to a more circular economy to reduce the types and quantities of plastics entering the environment
  • facilitating effective collaboration between community groups to contribute to a national citizen science database collecting evidence on the types of plastic entering our rivers
  • engaging young people on the impacts and solutions to the climate emergency, using plastics as a hook, providing young people with the support and guidance needed to encourage positive action.
  • creating guidance and teaching resources for the agriculture sector to bring together existing regulatory requirements and good practice to make it easier for farmers to prevent plastic pollution
  • encouraging sports clubs, stadiums and event organisers to pledge to reduce their plastic consumption through our Kicking Plastics Out of Sports project
  • created engaging resources to inspire behaviour change and reduce plastic waste during festivals and celebrations
  • facilitating a multi award winning cross-government Plastic Champions Network, which links more than 600 plastic champions across 40 government departments and agencies, to identify and action opportunities to reduce avoidable plastics at work, during volunteer days and in their local community
  • working with local organisations such as the Solent Forum to join up community environmental groups and identify plastic pollution hotspots through a new website and Facebook page

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