The environment is an increasingly critical issue for small firms as well as large. Issues related to the environmental impact of business, from water use to waste disposal, are coming ever more under the scrutiny of governments.

At the same time, consumers are less likely to turn a blind eye to poor environmental performance.

But it is undoubtedly in the proliferation of environmental regulation that businesses are feeling this shift most profoundly. Global summits, European directives, waste and emissions targets are giving rise to a wide array of regulations forcing companies to take action to reduce their impact on the environment.

The harsh reality is that poor environmental performance has consequences for profitability, competitiveness, reputation and staff morale. It is too big an issue to ignore. A raft of new regulation will continue to increase the expense of environmental performance. It is estimated that waste already costs businesses in the UK £15bn per year while, in many cases, failure to comply with regulations leaves businesses liable to punitive taxes and fines.

For small businesses in particular, these are significant developments. Unlike their larger cousins, they do not necessarily have either the resources or the expertise to comply with new regulation, which affects their ability to compete and, ultimately, survive. The best way to deal with the demands of environmental regulations is to anticipate them and take appropriate action before it is too late. However, Envirowise - the government funded body charged with helping companies reduce their environmental impact and costs - estimates that at least 30% of small businesses are struggling to keep up with existing and planned regulations that include: The European Hazardous Waste directive. This specifies new rules on landfill and hazardous waste. It bans the disposal of hazardous waste with non-hazardous waste in landfill. All businesses disposing of hazardous waste are responsible for dealing with it properly.

The Pollution Prevention and Control regime covers measures to reduce environmental impact and includes energy efficiency, waste minimisation, vibration and noise. Companies must implement management systems to ensure that all prevention and control measures are taken. The Producer Responsibility Regulations 1997 ensure that businesses take responsibility for the packaging waste they generate. The Restriction of Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directives work together to protect human health and the environment by restricting the use of certain hazardous substances and reduce waste from electrical equipment. Both are due to come in to force in summer 2006.

General advice Envirowise is working to help businesses across all sectors of the economy - a process that is part education, part inspiration. Our focus is firmly on ensuring that companies throughout the UK are ready to implement new regulation, are able to comply with it and are in a position to realise cost savings along the way. The Environment and Energy Helpline (0800 585 794) is the first port of call for advice on waste minimisation and environmental legislation, and the first point of contact with Envirowise. A dedicated team of experts provide up to two hours of free consultation and advice helping companies to assess their position and the steps they need to take.