Many small firms flout environmental regulations because of a mistaken belief they won't be prosecuted. Now there's a website that spells out your obligations

Legislative changes, rising waste disposal and energy costs, and increasing customer and supply-chain pressures are forcing construction businesses to rethink their environmental performance. High profile cases in which large companies are fined for polluting watercourses, storing asbestos or burning waste have helped to raise awareness of environmental legislation.

Or at least they have among the larger construction players. The construction industry is dominated by firms with fewer than 24 employees, and it is these businesses that often struggle to find the time and resources to dedicate to environmental issues. Many fail to follow the example of their larger counterparts and take the sustained action needed to reduce environmental impact.

This assertion is backed up by a survey of small businesses on how to comply with environmental legislation. The survey has revealed that 86% of small businesses in the construction sector could not name any environmental legislation, and almost half (45%) want more help and advice on environmental issues. The survey was carried out by the NetRegs website, which was set up by the UK's environmental regulators to offer free, practical advice to small businesses.

The benefits of complying with environmental legislation extend wider than just avoiding prosecution. As one of the UK's largest industries, the construction sector has a significant impact on the environment, and so it is up to individuals to take responsibility and to play a part in helping to keep this impact to a minimum. Adopting more environmentally aware practices also offers business benefits. For example, the construction industry produces more than 90 million tonnes of waste a year, yet it is estimated that 60-80% of all on-site building materials are reusable.

Increased landfill taxes and the rise in hazardous waste disposal costs are forcing many firms to become more resource efficient and this can have a positive impact on the bottom line. By implementing simple measures, most businesses can make savings worth up to 1% of their turnover.

Greener businesses also tend to be more competitive. A growing number of larger companies and retailers now insist that suppliers have good environmental credentials, and environmental compliance can help improve customer and supplier relations.

The NetRegs survey shows most of the sector is aware of the benefits of complying with environmental legislation. It revealed that 61% of construction businesses believe that complying with environmental legislation could help cut operating costs, and 83% thought it could benefit relations with customers.

But businesses are often unaware of what will happen if they overlook their environmental obligations, with many making the mistake of thinking either that they won't be caught or they won't be prosecuted. Be warned: environmental regulatory officers undertake regular checks across all businesses, and have powers under the Environment Act 1995 that enable them to enter your property.

If it is found that your business is breaking the law, you could be prosecuted. If convicted, you would face a substantial fine and, depending on the offence, a prison sentence. In one recent case, a company director was sentenced to 12 months in prison and fined £6000 plus costs for waste offences.

It is often understandably difficult for businesses to keep abreast of, and plan for, legislative changes. The introduction last year of the hazardous waste regulations, which classified additional wastes as hazardous and introduced controls on the movement of hazardous wastes, saw many businesses having to deal with hazardous waste for the first time and meet the associated waste management costs.

Businesses involved in every part of the construction supply chain can find out from the NetRegs website how to comply with environmental legislation from the preplanning of works through to demolition. They can also register to receive email updates about future changes to environmental legislation affecting the construction and other relevant sectors.