1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2005  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 21/01/2005   
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Contents >> Environment >> Environmental views and behaviour

Household waste management

Australia is among the highest producers of waste in the world (OECD 2002). It generates waste at a rate of 2.25 kilograms per person per day, the majority of which ends up in landfill (AGO 2004). During 2002-03 over 17 million tonnes of waste was disposed of at landfills in Australia. Over 30% of this was domestic or municipal waste.

The management of wastes is an important environmental issue. Some wastes are toxic and can harm living organisms and their disposal is of particular importance. Other wastes, while not directly toxic, can physically harm the environment. For example, wildlife can become entangled in plastic packaging and natural waterways can become blocked by rubbish. Sites that are used to store waste (e.g. tips, landfills) can also impact on the environment.

The guiding principles of waste management strategies in Australia are represented by the waste minimisation hierarchy - reduce, re-use and recycle. This strategy embraces a life-cycle approach whereby re-usable and recyclable waste may be used as an alternative to traditional source inputs, not only reducing waste but alleviating pressures on the natural resources. In 1992 a national target of 50% waste reduction by the year 2000 was adopted by the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council; concurrently, all states and territories set ambitious waste minimisation goals to meet or exceed national targets. Available information indicates that although waste reduction has occurred, mostly through recycling, the original targets have not been met by states and territories (Australian State of the Environment Committee 2001).

Waste recycling and re-use by households

Recycling generally refers to the processing of products or materials into similar products or using them as secondary raw materials in producing new products. With recycling, less energy is consumed, less virgin material is used, less damage is caused to the environment and landfill space is saved.

Almost all households in Australia engage in some form of recycling and/or re-use of waste, and the level of participation continues to increase over time. This may be attributed to the success of kerbside collection programs of various state governments and councils that deal with domestic wastes, garden refuse, plastic, paper, cardboard and glass.

In March 2003 about 95% of Australian households recycled waste, 83% re-used waste, while only 2% did not recycle or re-use at all (graph 24.1). Households in Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia had the highest rates (99%) of recycling and/or re-using waste. The percentage of households not recycling was highest in the Northern Territory (7% of households).


Paper and cardboard (88%) were the items most commonly recycled or re-used in Australia (graph 24.2). In the Australian Capital Territory about 97% of households recycled paper and cardboard, 94% in Victoria and 90% in New South Wales. The Northern Territory (74%) had the lowest levels of paper recycling or re-use. However, this participation rate has nearly doubled since 1996 (39% of households). Large increases in participation in paper and cardboard recycling were also reported in Tasmania (63% in 1996 to 84% in 2003), Victoria (77% to 94%) and Western Australia (68% to 82%).

Plastic bottles and plastic bags were the two next most common waste items recycled or re-used by Australian households (87% and 86% of households, respectively). The recycling or re-use rates of these plastic products continued to increase since 2000. These wastes were recycled or re-used throughout Australia with the Australian Capital Territory having the highest rates (plastic bottles 96%, plastic bags 92%) and the Northern Territory the lowest (plastic bottles 67% and plastic bags 78%).


About 87% of waste recycling by Australian households occurred through a regular kerbside collection service (graph 24.3). This method of recycling was practised across Australia; highest in the Australian Capital Territory (97%) and Victoria (95%). Steel cans (95% of households), paper and cardboard (90%), glass (90%) and aluminium cans (89%) were the items recycled most by households via kerbside collection.

Two-thirds (66%) of all households recycled waste by taking some of their waste to central collection points. South Australian households (81%) practised this recycling method more than households in any other states or territories. Households in the Northern Territory practised this method the least (52%). Old clothing or rags (70%) were the waste most commonly taken to central collection points followed by motor oil (28%), plastic bags (10%) and aluminium cans (9%).

Half (50%) of all households reported they composted or mulched waste, a slight drop from 54% in 1996. Households in the Australian Capital Territory (60%) and Tasmania (59%) had the highest levels of composting while the lowest levels were in Western Australia (43%) and New South Wales (45%). Kitchen and/or garden waste were the items most commonly composted or mulched.


Re-use involves using an item more than once, either for its original purpose or for a different purpose. Since 1996 the proportion of households re-using some waste has increased from 40% in 1996 to 83% in 2000, and to 85% in 2003 (graph 24.4). In 2003 re-use rates were highest in Queensland (90%), Tasmania (89%) and Australian Capital Territory (89%). Plastic bags (88% of households) and old clothing or rags (41% of households) were the waste items most commonly re-used.


Hazardous waste disposal

The majority of Australian households (82%) produce and dispose of hazardous waste that may potentially harm human health or the environment. Hazardous wastes require careful management as they may be poisonous, corrosive, flammable, explosive or reactive. Paints, cleaners, waste oils, garden chemicals and batteries are all examples of household materials that can be hazardous if not properly stored, used or disposed of.

With the increasing popularity of battery operated products (e.g. electric toys, mobile phones), household batteries have become the most common hazardous waste disposed of by households (graph 24.5). Disposal of household batteries has increased greatly from 19% of all households in 1996 to 62% in 2003. Pharmaceuticals (35%) and motor oil (28%) were the next most common types of hazardous waste disposed of by households.


The majority of Australian households (85%) continue to dispose of at least one type of hazardous waste via the usual garbage collection (graph 24.6). About 38% of households took hazardous wastes to a business or shop for their disposal, while 11% took hazardous wastes to a special area at dumps or waste transfer stations. Motor oil (73%), car batteries (50%) and pharmaceutical products (29%) were the wastes most commonly taken to a business or shop for disposal. Car batteries and paint (including their related products and their containers) were the waste most likely to be taken to a special area at the dump or waste transfer station (21% and 20%, respectively). About 19% of households that disposed of pharmaceuticals do so via drains, but this practice has declined over time (26% in 1996). Special services and/or safe waste disposal facilities were not utilised by 83% of all households disposing of hazardous waste.


Use of transport

The pattern of settlement in Australia and, in particular, the widely dispersed centres of industrial, agricultural, mining and production have led to a reliance on motor vehicle transport. For urban commuters, private vehicles (i.e. cars, trucks, vans, motorbikes) offer a convenient, reliable and fast means of travel. For industry, road transport offers a flexible means for the delivery of inputs needed for production and distribution of the goods.

The flexibility and convenience of road transport comes at an environmental cost. For example, motor vehicles create air pollution and, in particular, greenhouse gas emissions. In the inventory of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions for 2002 (AGO 2004) road transport accounted for 69.9 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions or 13% of total greenhouse gas emissions, of which 43.5 Mt (62%) came from passenger cars. Greenhouse gas emissions are discussed later in this chapter.

Main form of transport

The majority of Australians who are 18 years and over and work or study, use private vehicles for transport (75% in 2003) (graph 24.7). Approximately 12% mainly used public transport and 5% walked or cycled. Around 8% did not travel at all as they either worked or studied at home or within an educational institution (e.g. students at university colleges).

The proportion of people travelling by private vehicle to work or study has remained about the same between 2000 (78%) and 2003 (75%), as has the proportion of people travelling to work or study by public transport and walking or cycling.

Most people who used private vehicles to travel to work or study did so as a driver (71%). Another 4% of people travelled as a passenger. Driving to work or study was more common of persons aged 25-54 years and least common among younger (18-24 years) and older people (55 years and over).


Of the people driving to work or study in March 2003, 17% took passengers (compared with 19% in March 2000). Of the people taking passengers, the main reasons were work or study with or near passenger (40%), and dropping children off at school (39%). Environmental concerns ranked lowest with only 1% of people reporting this as a reason for taking passengers. The main reasons given for not taking passengers were others did not require transport (48% of people not taking passengers), work or study in different directions or locations (32%), and work or study hours did not match with prospective passengers (20%).

Non-use of public transport

Around 81% of Australian people (18 years and over and who work or study) never use public transport and the proportion of people using public transport to travel to work or study has remained constant at about 12% between 2000 and 2003. Public transport was better patronised in New South Wales (18% of people using public transport), Victoria (12%) and South Australia (10%) than in other states and territories. Trains (used by 7% of all people travelling to work or study) and buses (4%) were the most preferred mode of public transport.

Access and timing were the two main reasons reported by persons not using public transport (graph 24.8). Almost a third of people not using public transport (30%) reported that there was no service available in their area. Nearly a quarter (23%) said the public transport service did not suit their time, while a fifth (21%) reported it takes too long to reach work or study via public transport.


Walking and cycling to work or study

About 5% of Australia's work force and students (18 years and over) usually walk or cycle to work or study. Proximity of home to place of work or study (69%), exercise and health (50%) and cost (19%) were the principal reasons reported for walking or cycling to work or study (graph 24.9). People who usually walk or cycle in 2003 gave more emphasis to exercise and health as compared with 2000 (28%). Environmentally-related reasons (5%) were low on the list of reasons nominated for walking or cycling to work or study.


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