Pollution prevention for businesses

What businesses and organisations should do at work to avoid pollution incidents, including the permissions you need to dispose of waste.

You’re responsible for preventing your business or organisation from causing or allowing pollution to happen. Pollution is when any substance that harms or could harm people or the environment gets into the air, water or ground.

Polluting substances

It’s not just hazardous substances that can harm people or the environment. Any substance that’s not found naturally in an environment could cause pollution, and in certain circumstances even natural substances can pollute. For example, pollution can be caused by paper sludge, shampoo, or by dairy products such as milk and cream.

Some substances are directly toxic, eg pesticides, while others affect survival, eg oil that stops oxygen from entering water.

You can reduce the risk of polluting by following this and other specific guidance for:

You may need an environmental permit if you’re discharging substances to surface water or groundwater, working with waste or operating an installation, eg a metal finishers or a food production site.

If you pollute, you could get an unlimited fine, go to prison for up to 5 years, or both. You may also have to pay for the whole cost of the clean-up.

Contact the Environment Agency pollution incident hotline if polluting materials have entered or could enter a watercourse or soak into the ground, eg from a leak or uncontained spill.

Activities that produce contaminated water

If your business activities produce contaminated water or other polluting liquids (‘trade effluent’) you must make sure it doesn’t cause pollution.

Such activities may include:

  • vehicle washing, wheelie bin washing or yard cleaning
  • manufacturing processes
  • water cooling
  • cleaning of food production areas or ovens

You should reuse or dispose of contaminated water by:

  • collecting it in a sealed system for reuse, treatment on site or removal by a registered waste carrier
  • putting it down the foul water (or combined) drain if you’ve got permission from your water company - contact them to get consent

Correct use of drains

You must make sure contaminated and clean water from your premises and business activities goes into the correct drain or is recycled or removed by a registered waste carrier.

Make a drain plan

Make a plan of your drains to help you use them correctly, carry out maintenance, and deal more effectively with pollution if there’s a spill, leak or other incident. The plan should show:

  • where the drains are
  • types of drains - surface water, foul water, or combined
  • direction of flow
  • where drains leave your property
  • where they discharge into, eg a watercourse, a clean water soakaway, sewage treatment works

You may need to get a full drainage survey if you don’t know what types of drains your business has.

Use the right drain

Make sure that:

  • contaminated water drains into the foul water drain connected to a foul sewer - ask your water company for permission
  • clean water (mainly rainwater) drains into the surface water drain or soakaway (a special pit that allows clean, non-polluting water to drain into the ground)

If you have a combined drainage system it can handle both types of water, but you’ll still need permission from your water company to use it for contaminated water.

Never put fats, oil, grease or solid items down drains.

If you run a restaurant or other business that creates contaminated washwaters with waste oil or grease that could be discharged to sewers or drains, you should install fat and sediment traps to prevent blockages. You’ll also need to get permission from the water company or private sewer owner to discharge this waste.

If you make changes to your site, check your drain plan to make sure you don’t connect to the wrong drains. Update your plan with the changes.

If you have an environmental permit your drain plan will be part of your environmental management system.

Check your drains

Check your drains regularly for:

  • blockages or leaks - clear or repair them to prevent pollution
  • misconnections, where your drains have been connected to the wrong part of the sewer network – you must fix any misconnections or you could be fined up to £2,500

You must also follow the rules on package treatment plants and septic tanks if you have one.

Mark your manhole covers

Paint your manhole covers according to the standard code:

  • blue for surface water
  • red for foul water
  • red ‘C’ for a combined system where all water goes to a treatment plant

Show the direction of flow with a painted arrow on the manhole cover. Mark a corresponding arrow on the ground so that if a manhole cover is removed it can be replaced with the arrow pointing in the right direction.

Install an oil separator

You may need to install an oil separator (interceptor) or other device to remove oil from water draining off hard surfaces, eg roads and car parks, or loading areas.

Typically a separator is needed for any site with a risk of oil contamination, such as:

  • car parks larger than 800m2 in area or for 50 or of more car parking spaces
  • smaller car parks discharging to a sensitive environment, such as a marsh that has been designated as a nature reserve
  • vehicle maintenance areas
  • roads
  • refuelling facilities

The type and class of separator needed will depend on the activity and where the discharge is directed to.

Oil separators don’t work if there’s detergent in the water, eg from car washing. Use an alternative method such as a sealed treatment system, sustainable drainage system or waste removal service if necessary.

Storing materials, products and waste

Whichever type of storage you have you should create a pollution incident response plan to minimise pollution if there’s a leak, spill or fire.

Above ground storage

You should also read the specific guidance if you store any type of oil above ground.

If you store anything that might pollute the environment, eg chemicals, food or drink, make sure your containers are:

  • in good condition, including any pipework and valves, and you have an inspection and maintenance programme
  • protected against theft and vandalism
  • protected if they’re in a flood risk area - eg moved to another location, secured so they can’t float (ask the manufacturer how to do this), or protected by flood barriers
  • clearly marked so people know what’s in them and about any risks or hazards

Hazardous and non-hazardous waste must be stored separately. This reduces the risk of fire and means that if there is an incident - such as a spill - the substances can’t mix.

You also need secondary containment for your containers, eg a drip tray or ‘bund’ with an impermeable base and walls to contain or catch leaks, spills or water from firefighting. The Environment Agency recommends the following capacities for secondary containment:

  • at least 25% of the capacity of storage containers up to 205 litres capacity
  • at least 110% of the capacity of storage containers over 205 litres capacity

You must make sure your secondary containment is suitable for the substances you store, including its size and construction.

You must not allow the contents of containers to get into surface water or groundwater. The Environment Agency advises that you place your storage at least:

  • 10m away from watercourses, open drains, gullies, unsurfaced areas or porous surfaces
  • 50m from wells, springs or boreholes

Below ground storage

Substances that can be stored underground can include:

  • liquefied flammable gases
  • liquid fertilizer
  • fuel additives
  • biofuels
  • chemicals
  • liquid wastes and effluents
  • sewage effluent

Read specific guidance if you store petrol in underground tanks.

If you store anything that might pollute the environment in below ground tanks you should make sure:

  • your storage is suitable for the substances you store
  • you follow the manufacturer’s minimum recommended maintenance programme for your tanks
  • heavy lorry routes don’t pass over the storage tank or its pipework as these can cause vibration damage over time

You won’t be able to visually check your containers for damage or leaks so:

  • install a leak detection system, eg an interstitial monitoring device with automatic alarms
  • make any repairs as a matter of urgency
  • clearly mark delivery pipes with the tank volume and substance stored to ensure deliveries are made to the correct tanks

Storing hazardous substances

If you store more than a specific amount of a hazardous substance, eg explosives or flammable liquids, you must register with the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) competent authority.

Your business will also need to apply to your planning authority for hazardous substances consent and follow other Health and Safety Executive guidance (eg on displaying warning notices).

Old containers

When you stop using a container you must make sure it doesn’t cause pollution. Above or below ground tanks need specialist decommissioning then removal off site by a registered waste carrier.

Find out more about decommissioning an underground storage tank.

Your original supplier may take away undamaged drums and intermediate bulk containers for reuse.

Unloading and moving potential pollutants

Make sure you have procedures to prevent pollutants from spilling or leaking when they’re being delivered, loaded or moved around your premises.

Before you order new supplies, check the quantity in your containers - only order what can safely fit in the containers so you don’t overfill.

You should:

  • load and unload in suitable places on your site - make sure there are no open drains to surface water and carry out a risk assessment
  • use pre-arranged routes for deliveries and movements
  • have a spill kit, suitable to the products on your site, available near storage, loading areas and transfer routes
  • supervise deliveries, and make sure the people involved know what to do if there’s a spill and how to use the spill kit

Construction, inspection and maintenance

It’s up to you to assess and minimise pollution risk at your site, and know how you’ll respond if there is an incident. You can also make a pollution incident response plan.

You should:

  • prevent water from entering excavations by using cut-off ditches or covering the excavation
  • collect contaminated water (eg run-off or water pumped out of excavations) in a system where it can be recycled or treated, eg using a settlement tank or lagoon
  • carry out activities involving potential pollutants, eg concrete or fuel, in dedicated areas which are designed so that spills, leaks, drips and contaminated run-off can be captured and disposed of
  • protect stockpiles (eg soil, sand, hardcore) so that materials aren’t blown or washed away

You can read guidance on dewatering excavations and environmental permits.

Work in, over or near a river, stream, lake or pond

You need to get permission from the Environment Agency before you start work in, over or near a main river.

Make sure you don’t pollute rivers or other watercourses, eg:

  • by stirring up silt, dropping polluting materials from a bridge or riverbank, pumping out water from excavations into a watercourse
  • by allowing contaminated water from where you’re working to flow or seep into a watercourse

Plan how you’re going to avoid causing pollution, eg by enclosing the area you’re working in with a cofferdam. You might need to get an impoundment licence.

If you plan to use herbicides to control weeds in water or on the banks next to a body of water or watercourse you’ll need to apply for Environment Agency permission.

Set up an environmental management system

You may also need to develop an environmental management system (EMS) to help avoid pollution and act appropriately if an incident does occur. You can use your pollution incident response plan to develop your EMS.

You must have an EMS if you have an environmental permit.

Contact the Environment Agency

Contact the Environment Agency for more advice on preventing pollution.

General enquiries

National Customer Contact Centre
PO Box 544
S60 1BY

Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm

Find out about call charges

Published 12 July 2016