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The amount of waste generated tends to increase with the size of human settlements and the level of industrial activity. The volume and type of waste disposed of by Australian households and industries have varied over time, as has the rate at which resources are being recycled and reused. This commentary focuses on the disposal and reuse of solid wastes. Waste water is also important, and is discussed in the commentary Marine ecosystems.
The costs imposed by waste generation go beyond the financial costs of processing, treatment and transportation to landfill sites. Waste-related pollution and contamination can affect the environment and human health. And in some circumstances, waste can be recycled, reducing the volume of natural resources that must be extracted or harvested to support future production and consumption.
When assessing progress in this area, one might want to bear in mind three major aspects. The first involves minimising the amount of waste generated in the first instance. The second is to use the waste that is generated as resources where possible. The final aspect involves disposing of whatever waste cannot be recycled in a manner that is least harmful to the environment, the health of the population and economic progress. An ideal indicator of progress might capture all three aspects.
Waste can originate from a number of sources: households and councils; building and demolition sites; and commercial and industrial sources.
Quantities of solid waste disposed of at landfills - 1996-97
Recycling, Australian Capital Territory
Waste from households is generally made up of organic (food and 'green') wastes, paper, glass, metal and plastic. Councils are also responsible for collecting and disposing of litter (such as cigarette butts, bottles, cans, and packaging materials), often at a significant economic cost. Loose litter can also contribute to stormwater pollution which, in turn, can affect water quality on beaches and in waterways.(SEE FOOTNOTE 1)
INDUSTRIAL WASTE AND RECYCLING
The volume of commercial and industrial waste disposed of as landfill varies significantly by industry sector. For instance, a landfill audit in South Australia found that 45% of all commercial and industrial waste is generated by the manufacturing sector, with retail trade (17.5%) the next largest contributor.(SEE FOOTNOTE 5)
An increasing number of industries are using recycled materials as inputs into the manufacturing process. Examples include the recycling of steel and aluminium cans by manufacturers of packaging.
Another example is the use of bagasse (the residual waste from raw sugar processing). The heat produced by burning bagasse is used to power machines that crush sugar cane, and also for electricity generation. Other biomass resources (i.e. biological materials used as fuels) used to generate electricity include: black liquor at paper pulp plants, sawmill waste, and woodchips.(SEE FOOTNOTE 6)
LINKS TO OTHER DIMENSIONS OF PROGRESS
High levels of waste can impose adverse effects on the environment, particularly if not contained and managed effectively. The quality of land surrounding waste disposal sites can also be affected. Land degradation may occur if adequate measures are not taken to prevent substances such as oils and tars, metals and organic compounds from contaminating landfill sites and the areas surrounding them.
Waste is also related to greenhouse emissions (the decomposition of organic waste releases methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere).
1 NSW EPA 1995, State of the Environment 1995 Environmental Protection Authority of New South Wales. URL: http://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/soe/95/ last viewed 13 March 2002.
2 Beverage Industry Environment Council (BIEC) 1997, National Recycling Audit and Garbage Bin Analysis, BIEC, Canberra.
3 ACT Government 2001, ACT Recycling and Resource Recovery Results. URL: http://www.act.gov.au/nowaste/2000-2001Recovery.xls last viewed 13 March 2002.
4 State of the Environment Advisory Council (SoE) 2002, Australia - State of the Environment Report 2001, State of the Environment Advisory Council, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.
5 South Australia Environment Protection Agency 2000, South Australia Landfill Audit, SA EPA, Adelaide.
6 Redding Energy Management, in association with Energy and Environmental Management Group 1999, 2% Renewables Target in Power Supplies, Potential for Australian Capacity to Expand to Meet the Target. Submitted to Australian Greenhouse Office.URL: www.greenhouse.gov.au/markets/2percent_ren/expert/redding.html last viewed 13 March 2002.