1370.0 - Measuring Australia's Progress, 2002  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 19/06/2002   
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Many economic activities generate waste - solid, liquid and gaseous wastes are a by-product of many productive processes, and goods (or their packages) may be discarded by consumers.

Waste can be expensive to deal with and can have a damaging impact on the environment or even affect people's health. This commentary sheds some light on three important aspects:

  • how much waste Australians generate;
  • how much is recycled; and
  • how the remainder is disposed of.

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

‘000 tonnes


Source: Waste Management Industry, Cat. no. 8698.0.

Recycling, Australian Capital Territory
Graph - 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)


In recent years, recycling has become more popular among many Australian households. This is partly the result of government programs aimed at increasing not only the awareness of the types of materials that can be recycled, but also the capacity for households to participate in recycling. The provision of a bin or crate, and a regular council collection service, have played an important role in fostering community participation. The development of facilities for processing different types of recycled waste has also been important in expanding the range of materials collected.(SEE FOOTNOTE 2)

In the ACT, for example, the volume of waste recycled increased from 48,000 tonnes to 355,000 tonnes between 1990-91 and 2000-01(SEE FOOTNOTE 3) There is considerable variation in recycling and disposal facilities, price incentives and publicity campaigns from one jurisdiction to another, so the recycling pattern in the ACT is unlikely to be representative of national patterns. But the ACT experience illustrates the extent of the change that has taken place in some parts of the country over the last decade.

Despite the marked improvements in the uptake of recycling by householders, there is still potential to reduce the volume of waste that could be recycled (which instead goes to landfills). One study estimated that nationally, around one-fifth of the waste stream is recycled - this is less than half of the proportion that could be recycled.(SEE FOOTNOTE 2) The 2001 State of the Environment report assessed that recycling rates had improved across the country. But, the report indicates, progress had fallen short of the target set in 1992, when the National Waste Minimisation Act was introduced. The Act set a target of a 50% reduction in national waste from 1990 levels by 2000.(SEE FOOTNOTE 4)

Another area in which there appears to be scope for progress is the reduction of contamination by non-recyclable materials. In a sample of 18 tonnes of waste diverted by households for recycling, 1.2 tonnes (6.8%) were found to consist of non-recyclable waste.(SEE FOOTNOTE 2)


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)


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.

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