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What is commercial waste and how should you handle it?

Businesses have legal responsibilities when managing the waste they produce, which also applies to start-ups. This guide outlines what you need to know. 

Many businesses produce waste, with commercial rubbish representing a significant proportion of all waste produced in the UK.

Of the total 222.2 million tonnes opens in new windowof waste generated in 2018, an estimated 43.9 million tonnes was commercial and industrial waste.

Under the law opens in new window, waste must be dealt with safely and responsibly, no matter the size of your business – even if it is a start-up.

It’s an issue that has increased in importance over recent years due to the concerns around climate change opens in new window and the UK government’s push towards achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 opens in new window.

It’s worth knowing that some commercial waste regulations differ between the four nations of the United Kingdom so it’s worth checking the rules in England opens in new window, Wales opens in new window, Scotland opens in new window and Northern Ireland opens in new window.


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As part of our Learn with Start Up Loans opens in new window partnership with The Open University, our online course is free to join, delivered by experts and includes a free statement of participation on completion.


What is commercial waste?

Commercial waste is the collective term for waste that results from business activity.

That could be an office disposing of paper documents, a retail store throwing away product packaging, or a cinema discarding uneaten hot dogs.

It also covers waste generated by home-based businesses, such as start-ups using a domestic kitchen to make food products.

Business waste, sometimes known as industrial waste, can also be generated by major waste-producing sectors such as construction, demolition, and agriculture.


Why should commercial waste be handled properly?

A business has legal responsibilities regarding waste disposal, with a duty of care to manage waste safely and responsibly.

Commercial waste cannot, for example, be disposed of in domestic bins as you need to register for commercial containers.

The duty of care applies from the point you produce the waste until a licensed waste company has properly recovered or disposed of it.

You must keep waste to a minimum by doing everything you reasonably can to prevent, reuse, recycle, or recover waste.

With the standard rate of landfill tax currently £98.60 a tonne opens in new window, it is in a business’ financial interest to reuse or recycle as much waste as possible.

Fail to comply with the law by not correctly following the appropriate regulations, and you risk hefty fines or even imprisonment.

In England and Wales, magistrates’ courts can impose unlimited fines and up to 12 months in prison, while in crown courts, unlimited fines and up to five years imprisonment are available.

Improper waste disposal by businesses can have significant detrimental effects on the environment opens in new window.

Poorly discarded rubbish can end up on landfill sites, described by the European Environment Agency as “the last resort in the waste hierarchy” opens in new window.

On these sites, methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas linked to climate change, is produced.

Water and soil can also be contaminated, while the treatment of landfill waste releases carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas.

Waste can also end up in oceans and can have a damaging effect on the environment and wildlife.

According to the Marine Conservation Society opens in new window, around 5,000 items of marine plastic pollution opens in new window have been found per mile of beach in the UK, and government figures show that 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and one million seabirds are killed each year by plastic pollution.


Tips on handling commercial waste


Understand your duty of care

The Environment Protection Act 1990 places a duty of care on businesses to ensure that waste is correctly disposed of.

However, government research opens in new window indicates that more than half of UK companies are not complying with duty of care and related regulations.

Make sure you understand your obligations by reading the complete guidance for England and Wales opens in new window, Scotland opens in new window or Northern Ireland opens in new window.


Follow the waste hierarchy

Businesses must apply the waste hierarchy to how they manage their waste.

The hierarchy ranks options for waste management according to what is best for the environment.

Priority should be given to preventing waste from being produced in the first place.

If waste is generated, businesses should first look at all opportunities for reuse, then recycling, and then recovery.

Disposal should always be the final option.

Read complete waste hierarchy guidance for England opens in new window, Wales opens in new window, Scotland opens in new window and Northern Ireland opens in new window.


Understand your waste

You must understand the different types of waste you produce, whether hazardous or non-hazardous and how it should be stored and dealt with.

The rules vary according to the type of waste and can be different for similar products.

For example, filament or incandescent light bulbs are non-hazardous, but compact fluorescent tube bulbs are hazardous.

All different types of waste should be kept separate.

This is particularly important for hazardous and non-hazardous waste, which should never be kept together.

Hazardous material, such as chemicals, batteries, asbestos, pesticides, and solvents, must be stored in specialist containers and dealt with by a specialist hazardous waste disposal service.

The Environmental Service Association opens in new window’s Right Waste Right Place campaign opens in new window has a useful guide to the different types of waste opens in new window and how they should be stored and managed.


Use a licensed waste disposal service

It is illegal for businesses to use domestic waste collection services for commercial waste.

Any waste consumed or used in a business premises is classified as commercial waste, and you must use a commercial waste service to deal with it.

This Right Waste Right Place case study opens in new window explains how a beauty salon owner was fined over £3,000 for dumping rubbish sacks on the street that contained waxing strips, boxes for latex gloves, spray tan liquid and other commercial waste.

Your local council might provide commercial waste services, or you can use a private company.

You must make sure that the company is officially licensed to deal with the type of waste you have.

If you have various types of waste, you might need to use more than one business.

You can check that companies are licensed by using online registers for England opens in new window, Wales opens in new window, Scotland opens in new window and Northern Ireland opens in new window.


Complete the correct paperwork

There are paperwork regulations you must comply with when handling waste.

For example, each time you move a load of non-hazardous waste off your business premises you must complete a waste transfer note opens in new windowor another document, such as an invoice opens in new window, with the same information.

To move hazardous waste, you must use consignment notes opens in new window.


Report illegal practices

If you suspect the waste service you are using is not complying with the law, then you should report it.

Remember that your duty of care to manage waste safely applies until the waste is properly recovered or disposed of.

Depending on where in the UK you are based and the type of potential crime that has occurred, you can report it to local councils, Crimestoppers, the Environment Agency, and other government organisations.


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Reference to any organisation, business and event on this page does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation from the British Business Bank or the UK Government. Whilst we make reasonable efforts to keep the information on this page up to date, we do not guarantee or warrant (implied or otherwise) that it is current, accurate or complete. The information is intended for general information purposes only and does not take into account your personal situation, nor does it constitute legal, financial, tax or other professional advice. You should always consider whether the information is applicable to your particular circumstances and, where appropriate, seek professional or specialist advice or support.

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