With the economy showing small but encouraging signs of recovery, Northern Ireland's businesses are attempting to both return to normal levels of production and to explore new opportunities in a period of economic and environmental fragility.
Businesses have learned difficult lessons, being forced to identify any wasteful and inefficient activities.
However, they responded well to the difficult economic climate and picked up on the clear benefits of greener business practices.
A recent survey of small and medium-sized businesses by NetRegs.gov.uk, the DOE's environmental guidance website, revealed that over half of Northern Ireland businesses are now taking action to reduce the harm they do to the environment, 85% are recycling their waste, which is the highest figure in the UK, and one-third has made energy efficiency or water-reduction improvements.
We must base our recovery on sustainable economic development within environmental limits. Our economy and our environment are inextricably linked and we must take care to promote growth without damaging our natural assets.
My department is primarily focused on protecting an environment which will support a vibrant and dynamic economy. Environmental regulation provides vital protection for the community and the economy, as well as our natural assets.
Through its Better Regulation Programme, officials in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) are setting up a streamlined regulatory framework which will safeguard the environment without placing unreasonable burdens on already-struggling businesses.
The Department of the Environment established the Better Regulation Board in 2008 as a forum for officials and key business and environmental stakeholders to discuss environmental compliance and best practice. This has helped improve the important relationship between the regulator and the regulated.
We are determined to make it simpler for businesses to comply through Better Regulation. It is vital that they know their obligations and how to comply with them.
Therefore, we are improving our provision of advice and guidance. Companies can get straightforward advice on environmental regulations, tailored to their particular business sector on NetRegs.gov.uk.
We are rolling out business seminars in partnership with industry. We already covered environmental management systems, marine licensing, duty of care and waste electrical and electronic equipment and batteries regulations.
Businesses will be able to apply and pay online for licences and permits later this year. We are revising how we apply our fees and charges to provide greater transparency and reflect the compliance record and risk posed by an operator.
We are also taking firm enforcement action against serious and persistent offenders whose careless disregard for the environment destroys jobs in legitimate firms. Good management of resources is vital to sustaining Northern Ireland's economy and natural environment. NIEA is currently developing clear guidance to facilitate the reuse of materials, such as topsoil from construction sites, and the department is now a partner in the Waste Quality Protocols Programme with the Environment Agency and WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) to produce standards for a wide range of materials.
A number of protocols will be published for Northern Ireland in the coming months, including compost, waste cooking oil and tyre crumb. This will mean less regulation and more opportunities to get greater value from materials.
Green credentials and environmental compliance can help you win valuable business. Indeed, the need for cleaner, greener technologies offers exciting prospects for Northern Ireland's highly skilled business community and the chance to establish ourselves as world leaders in this emerging market.
We will continue to work closely with other Government departments to make sure that there are real incentives in place for innovation and better environmental performance.