Demystifying the new UK Environment Act

The Environment Act became law in 2021 and is now the UK’s framework for environmental protection.

It is an important Act because rules and regulations on nature protection, water quality, clean air and other environmental protections that originated from Brussels became at risk once the UK left the European Union (EU). The Environment Act 2021 is meant to fill the gap.

An environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), has also been set up under the Act. Its purpose is to hold the Government, and other public bodies, accountable and ensure environmental laws are followed.

Playing a crucial role in ensuring an improvement in the environment, The OEP is now running on an interim basis and is expected to be fully operational as a regulator at the beginning of 2022.

Here we demystify the Environment Act and what it means for business.

What is the UK Environment Act?

The Environment Act 2021 focuses on protecting and enhancing the environment for future generations by setting legally binding targets for clean air, nature, waste and recycling, and water. It is expected these changes will assist the transition to a circular economy and boost nature recovery to tackle the twin challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change.

It covers the following areas:

Clean Air

It legally binds targets to improve air quality. Specifically, it requires Local Authorities to tackle air quality and simplify enforcement within smoke control areas.


The Act clearly focuses on conservation by prohibiting larger UK businesses using commodities associated with wide-scale deforestation. Tougher woodland protection enforcement measures will also be implemented.

It requires regulated businesses to establish a system of due diligence for each regulated commodity used in their supply chain, requires them to report on their due diligence, and introduces a due diligence enforcement system.

The Act also includes: a strengthened biodiversity duty to ensure at least 10 percent increase in biodiversity; the creation of Local Nature Recovery Strategies to build a Nature Recovery Network across the country, and a duty upon Local Authorities to consult on street tree felling.

Much of the nature targets in the Environmental Act were included or strengthened thanks to a Woodland Trust campaign involving thousands of people through the Wildlife and Countryside Link. The campaign helped secure amendments to the bill to introduce a legally binding target halting nature’s decline by 2030. It’s hailed as huge win for the natural world and should pave the way for coordinated action for nature’s recovery in the UK.

Waste and recycling

The Environment Act incentivises more recycling and makes household recycling easier with greater consistency in recycling collections in England.

It has stopped the export of polluting plastic waste to developing countries and will regulate shipment of hazardous waste.

Businesses will be encouraged to create sustainable packaging, through the introduction of 100 percent charges for disposal of products, starting with plastic packaging. The Act also has the power to introduce new resource efficiency information (labelling on the recyclability and durability of products).

The Act provides the means to create the much-anticipated Deposit Return Scheme for single use drinks containers and charges for single use plastics.

Electronic waste tracking to monitor waste movements and tackle fly-tipping and other waste crime is also included.


There is a focus on reducing the level of sewage discharge and other waste, to clamp down on the causes and damaging effects of pollution. The Act also makes drainage and sewerage management planning a statutory duty, and water companies will now need to effectively collaboration through statutory water management plans.

What does this mean for business?

The Environmental Act 2021 covers a wide range of issues. It is vital that businesses are fully aware and understand the impact these changes will have on operations and legal obligations.

With the inclusion of waste crime, in particular, it is essential businesses comprehensively understand the implications of the Environmental Act to stand up to scrutiny by regulators, which will be able to use criminal and civil enforcement powers when necessary.

It is critical to take advice where needed and take steps to ensure compliance. The independent OEP has the tools and authority to protect and improve the environment by holding government and public authorities to account.

The Act is undoubtedly a major milestone for the UK in its environmental efforts. Commitments must be upheld, plans implemented, and ambitions realised so it shows its impact over time.

Access the full Environment Act 2021.

Please remember this is not legal advice, simply an interpretation of the Environmental Act 2021. Do seek appropriate legal advice from a qualified solicitor before taking or refraining from taking any action.

This article was first published at Climate Action North.

Demystifying the new UK Environment Act

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