1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2003  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/01/2003   
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Contents >> Environment >> Environmental views and behaviour

Concerns about environmental problems

The attitudes of Australians influence decision-making on environmental issues. Australians appear to have become less concerned about environmental problems during the last decade. In 1992, three out of four Australians (75%) stated that they were concerned about the environment, but this level of concern fell to 62% in 2001. The decline in level of concern is most pronounced among young Australians (aged 18-24), only 57% of whom expressed concern about the environment in 2001 compared to 79% in 1992. People in the 45-54 age group contained the largest proportion expressing concern about environmental problems (69% in 2001), while older people (65 years and over) contained the smallest proportion (51% in 2001) (graph 14.1).

Graph - 14.1 Concern about environmental problems, by age group (years)

Registration of environmental concerns

Of those who stated concern about environmental problems, less than one in 10 (8%) registered their environmental concern by writing letters, telephoning, participating in a demonstration, signing a petition or making some other form of official expression. Of those who registered concern, 37% signed a petition, 33% wrote letters and 27% used the telephone. The least favoured method of registration was participation in a demonstration (6%) (graph 14.2).

Graph - 14.2 Method of registration of environmental concern

Of those registering environmental concerns, younger people (aged 18-24) were the most likely to sign a petition (60%) or participate in a demonstration (10%) to register their concern, and were more than twice as likely to pursue these options than those aged 55 and over. People aged 45 and over were most likely to register their concern by writing letters.

Only 7% of Australians stated that they belonged to an environmental group. Younger people reported the highest membership in environmental groups (9%). Of those who were members of an environmental group, the majority (62%) belonged to non-specific environmental groups. Membership was highest for landcare or catchment management groups (36%), more than three times that of marine conservation groups (11%).

Donation of time or money to environmental protection

As concern about environmental issues has declined among Australians, so has the time and money donated by households to environmental protection. In 1992, more than 28% of Australians stated that they donated time or money to environmental protection, compared with only 20% in 2001. While people aged 35-44 ranked highest in terms of contribution at 23%, the same group registered the highest decline in contribution (13%) from 1992 (graph 14.3).

Graph - 14.3 Donation of time or money to environmental protection

Time was the main factor limiting involvement in environmental actions. Nearly half (49%) of Australians claimed that they had 'no time' for such involvement. 'Age, health or inability' was the next most likely reason (10%), particularly for people aged 65 and over (46%). Only 5% of respondents stated 'no money' as the main reason for non-involvement.

Comparison of environmental views and practices across states and territories

Environmental views and practices differ across states and territories. People in the Australian Capital Territory reported the highest level of concern about environmental problems (71%), followed closely by South Australia and Western Australia (70% and 69% respectively). New South Wales and Tasmania reported the lowest levels of environmental concern in 2001 (59% and 60% respectively). Since 1992, Tasmania has consistently reported lower levels of environmental concern than other states and territories.

Registration of environmental concerns by Australians fell across all states and territories (except South Australia) between 1992 and 2001. Western Australians were the most likely to register their environmental concerns (12%) and people in the Australian Capital Territory were least likely to do so (7%) in 2001.

People in South Australia and Western Australian were the most likely to contribute time or money towards environmental protection; in both states, one in four provided such support in 2001.

Water supply, quality and conservation

Water is essential for all living organisms. Australia is considered one of the driest inhabited continents (Smith 1998). Relative to other continents, Australia is also characterised as having variable climatic conditions and high levels of evapotranspiration. These factors result in a low proportion of rainfall converted to streamflow (Pigram 1986), making freshwater a valuable resource. All Australians are affected by the provision and availability of good quality water.

Given that 2003 is the International Year of Freshwater, consideration of the availability and quality of water is particularly relevant in this edition of Year Book Australia (see the article Australia's rivers).

Water supply

Mains or town water is the most common source of domestic water supply in Australia. Over nine in 10 (94%) Australian households received their domestic water supply from this source in 2001 (graph 14.4). Mains water was fully established in the Australian Capital Territory (100%). Tasmanians were the least likely to have mains water supply; in Tasmania 87% of the households were connected to it. Rainwater tanks and bottled water were the next most important sources of water (both 16%) after mains water supply. South Australians were the most likely to depend on these sources of water (on rainwater by 52%, and on bottled water by 27%); both shares were more than twice the national average dependency on those sources of water.

Graph - 14.4 Water sources

Bottled water has become an increasingly important source of drinking water across Australia since 1994 (7% dependency in 2001, compared with 2% in 1994). Except for the Australian Capital Territory, all states and territories showed a rising trend in the consumption of bottled water. Since 1994, South Australia consistently ranked highest for use of bottled water as a source of water (from 9% in 1994 to 24% in 2001). South Australians were the most likely to rely on bottled water as their main source of drinking water (16%), which was more than twice the national average. People in New South Wales (8%) and Western Australia (7%) reported the next highest degree of dependency (graph 14.5).

Graph - 14.5 Bottled water as main source of drinking water

Water quality

Water quality can be affected by a number of factors including bacterial contamination and physical or chemical changes such as turbidity, colour and acidity. Treating water with chlorine can affect its taste. The national water quality guidelines, the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines 1996, are endorsed by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand. These guidelines are not mandatory standards, but represent a framework for identifying acceptable water quality through community consultation (WSAA 2001).

In 2001, over a quarter (27%) of Australians were not satisfied with the quality of tap-water for drinking (graph 14.6). South Australians were the most dissatisfied (42%), to the extent that 10% of people indicated they did not drink any tap-water at all. This was four times the national average. Dissatisfaction with the quality of tap-water for drinking has declined in most states and territories, the exceptions being South Australia and Tasmania. People in the Northern Territory were the most satisfied with the quality of tap-water for drinking (90%).

Graph - 14.6 Dissatisfaction with tap-water quality for drinking

Several problems affected the quality of mains tap-water for drinking. Half of those who expressed dissatisfaction with quality of drinking water (52%) nominated taste as the reason for their dissatisfaction (graph 14.7). About a third stated chlorine as a problem (32%). Other common complaints included: dirty water (16%); odour (16%); colour (15%); and microbial or algae contamination (14%). Since 1998, the proportion of Australians concerned about the different problems associated with water quality declined, except in relation to chlorine, which registered a small increase in concern (30% in 1998; 32% in 2001).

Graph - 14.7 Quality problems with mains tap-water for drinking

South Australian households registered the highest levels of dissatisfaction with taste (65%), followed by Western Australian households (58%). Northern Territorians were the most likely to complain that the tap-water was salty (5%). About 4% of South Australians also mentioned this problem. This corresponds with research by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation which found that salt concentrations in several Adelaide Hills catchments periodically exceeds Australian drinking water guidelines (Newton et al. 2001).

Water conservation

Australian households used 1.8 million megalitres of water in 1996-97, making households the second largest user of water after the agriculture sector (ABS 2000b). Therefore, water conservation methods at home can make a significant contribution to reducing the total amount of water consumed.

Household water conservation can be achieved through both the use of devices such as dual flush toilets and reduced flow shower heads and behavioural practices like having shorter showers.

In relation to water conserving devices, 64% of households had a dual flush toilet (up from 55% in 1998), and 35% of households had a reduced flow shower head (up from 32% in 1998) (graph 14.8). Just over a quarter of Australian households (27%) did not have either of these items.

Turning off or repairing dripping taps was still the most common behavioural practice reported by Australian households in 2001 (20%). The second most common practice was having full loads of washing (16%), followed by having shorter showers (14%). The overall commitment to saving water in the household by behaviour modification slipped slightly over the years, with 56% of households reporting that they did not adopt any behavioural practice to conserve water in 2001. This compares with 53% in 1998 and 54% in 1994.

Victorian households were the most likely to practise water conservation, with just over half (51%) of households reporting taking some steps. This is a significant increase on 1994 figures, when 40% of Victorians took specific water conservation steps. In contrast, several states including New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory, showed a significant decline in households taking water conservation steps.

Graph - 14.8 Water conservation methods, devices and behavioural practices

Just over half (58%) of Australian households with a garden reported that they regularly conserve water in the garden, with a further 3% reporting that they sometimes use water-saving measures. Home gardeners in Western Australia were the most committed (68%) and those in New South Wales were the least likely to do so (50%).

The main method used by Australian home gardeners was to water either early in the morning or late in the evening when it was cooler (graph 14.9). The next two most common practices were to water less frequently but for longer periods (20%), and to use recycled water (18%). Around one in 10 households with a garden reported that they did not bother to water the garden at all but only relied on rainfall.

Graph - 14.9 Water conservation methods in the garden

Over two-thirds (69%) of Australian households with a garden used mulch in 2001. Nearly three-quarters of those using mulch in the garden did it to conserve water (74%), while over a third mulched to reduce weeds (36%). Around 58% of households with gardens planted native trees or shrubs, with the highest proportion occurring in the Australian Capital Territory (66%). However, only around 18% of households planted natives for their water conserving attributes.

Household waste management

Australia is among the top 10 solid waste generators within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (OECD 1999). The primary pressure from waste generation is the need for disposal, and the consequent environmental impacts. The main form of waste disposal in Australia is landfill, which accounts for over 95% of solid waste disposal in some states and territories (Newton et al. 2001). The impacts of landfill disposal include: use of land that could otherwise be used for another purpose; potential leachates from toxic wastes; release of methane from the decomposition of organic wastes; and greenhouse gas emissions through the transportation of wastes to landfills, which are mostly on the fringes of cities (Newton et al. 2001).

Wastes are generally categorised as either urban solid wastes or hazardous wastes. Urban solid wastes are further classified into three types: municipal (domestic and council); commercial and industrial; and construction and demolition. Approximately 40% of all solid wastes are municipal, much of it from domestic households. The rate of household waste disposal in Australia is among the highest 10 in the OECD. Based on 1996-97 data, the per capita disposal of domestic waste in Australia was approximately 400 kilograms per year (OECD 1999). Waste from households typically includes garden wastes, paper, glass, plastic and food wastes.

The guiding principles for current waste management strategies are represented by the waste minimisation hierarchy. This strategy is aimed at providing options to avoid generating waste in the first place, and extracting the maximum benefits from the waste. The hierarchy begins with reducing waste, following by reusing and recycling, then recovery of heat energy such as methane, and finally treatment and disposal. This strategy embraces a life-cycle approach whereby reusable and recyclable waste may be used as an alternative to traditional resource inputs. Therefore, not only is waste reduced but some of the pressures on natural resources are alleviated.


Reducing waste means preventing waste generation in the first place. Householders can avoid generating waste by bulk buying, using refillable containers, composting food scraps, choosing products with minimal packaging, buying products that are built to last, and refusing disposable carry bags. Other methods of reducing waste are to use durable, long-lasting goods instead of disposable ones, in order to reduce the input of virgin materials by consuming less.


Reusing involves using something more than once, either in its original form, or for a different purpose. Examples include using refillable containers, donating old clothes to other family members or charities, and buying secondhand or antique furniture. Reuse for a different purpose includes using paper, cardboard and packaging for children's art and craft activities, and reusing glass and plastic containers.


Recycling infers processing of products or materials into similar products or using them as secondary raw materials for producing new products. Usually less energy is consumed, less virgin material is used (avoiding further environmental damage), and landfill space is saved.

Household recycling increased in Australia during the 1990s: in 1992 around 85% of people recycled at least one item of their household waste; by 2000 the vast majority of Australians (97%) practised at least some recycling, with 7% doing so for all recyclable items. Paper, old clothing, plastic bags and glass were the items most commonly recycled (graph 14.10). The preferred method for household recycling of paper (by 87% of households), glass (by 88%), cans and plastic bottles (both by 89%) was a collection service from the dwelling. For plastic bags, reuse was the most popular option. Around two-thirds of Australian households composted or mulched their kitchen or food waste (67%) and garden waste (71%). Old clothes or rags were usually (73%) taken to a central collection point such as a charity depot.

Graph - 14.10 households involved in recycling, items recycled - 2000

As more Australians have become involved in recycling, the proportion of households not participating declined from 15% in 1992 to only 3% in 2000 (graph 14.11). Lack of recyclable materials was the main reason for households not recycling, and these households were most likely to be composed of people living alone.

Graph - 14.11 households not recycling any wasted

Use of environmentally friendly products (EFPs)

EFPs are important for reducing waste produced within households as they generally take less natural resources to produce and generate less waste than their counterparts. In 2001, the most widely used EFPs in Australian households was refillable containers, followed by recycled paper (table 14.12). More than half of all Australian households claimed they do not eat organically grown fruit and vegetables (56%) and nearly one in two households did not use unbleached paper (45%) or phosphate-free cleaning products (43%).

14.12 USE OF EFPs(a)


Refillable containers
Phosphate-free cleaning products
Unbleached paper
Recycled paper
Organically grown fruit and vegetables

(a) For 1998 and 2001, includes households which sometimes use EFPs.
(b) Respondents were not asked about organically grown fruit and vegetables in 1992.

Source: Environmental Issues: People's Views and Practices (4602.0).

Cost was the single most important factor which prevented households from using EFPs (graph 14.13). Over a third of households (37%) which did not use them believed that these products were more expensive to buy. About 4% were not convinced of the environmental benefits.

Graph - 14.13 Reasons EFPS not used

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