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New South Wales State of the Environment
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SoE 2003 > Human settlement > 2.5 Waste management

Chapter 2: Human Settlement

2.5 Waste management

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2.5 Waste management

Materials recovery rates improve in all waste sectors

NSW has significantly improved its waste management and resource recovery practices over the past decade and the amount of waste disposed of in all waste streams has slowed.

Local government has been particularly active and substantially increased the opportunities for recycling materials. As a result, domestic kerbside recycling in the Sydney Metropolitan Area has more than doubled since 1991 and stood at 85 kilograms per capita in 2001. Industry has also made some gains with substantial investment in recycling facilities and the use of recycled construction and demolition material instead of extract from quarries.

Despite these positive gains in materials recovery, the high levels of total waste being generated challenges the NSW community to continue its waste reduction efforts.

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NSW Indicators


Status of Indicator

2.13 Solid waste disposal

The level of waste generated remains high.

2.14 Waste recycling

There have been improvements in recycling opportunities and actual participation.

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Importance of the issue

The generation and management of waste has a number of potential environmental impacts, including pollution of air or waters and contamination of land. High levels of waste generation may be unsustainable, particularly if finite natural resources are being used.

In Australia, three distinct waste streams are recognised depending on the source of the waste: municipal, construction and demolition (C&D), and commercial and industrial (C&I). Australia's per capita waste disposal rate is estimated to be 1.1 tonnes per year, the second highest among the OECD countries and surpassed only by the United States (OECD 1999).

The waste management industry in NSW is changing rapidly: ownership is becoming increasingly concentrated and a greater range of technologies is being used to recover and treat different types of waste. Despite advances in waste recovery, treatment and recycling, disposal of waste to landfill is expected to become an emerging issue in NSW by 2006 as landfill capacity begins to be exhausted because of the high disposal levels (Wright 2000). The difficulty of reducing the waste generated and managing solid waste are most evident in the Sydney Metropolitan Area (SMA), which produces most of the waste in NSW. The SMA is also the area with the most reliable and comprehensive data. The SMA includes all the local government areas in metropolitan NSW, except Hawkesbury, Gosford, Wyong, Wollongong and the Blue Mountains. In 2001, the SMA generated approximately two-thirds of the six million tonnes of waste disposed of in NSW (EPA data, as at 2002).

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Waste disposal rates

Industry generates 68% of the waste disposed of in NSW, while the remainder (called 'municipal waste') is generated domestically or in public places and typically managed by local government. Total waste disposal levels in the SMA increased throughout the 1980s to the then-peak in 1990 of over four million tonnes. As Figure 2.13 shows, reported waste disposal fell in all sectors in the early 1990s, dropping 24% between 1990 and 1993. This was largely a result of poor economic conditions, the introduction of domestic kerbside recycling collections, and incomplete reporting of industry waste that was disposed of at landfills without weighbridges. Following this fall, levels rose each year from 1994 until 2000 when the 1990 figure was exceeded. Waste sectors then stabilised or declined again in 2001. In 2001, per capita waste disposal levels were 16% less than in 1990.

Figure 2.13: Waste disposal rates for all sectors and waste disposed of per capita, SMA, 1990–2001

Figure 2.13

Download Data

Source: EPA data, as at October 2002

Until recently more economic growth has usually meant that more waste has been generated and disposed of. As a result, international waste disposal comparisons are frequently made in terms of waste disposal per $100 of gross domestic product, or gross state product (GSP) in the case of a State. Total waste disposed of in the SMA per $100 GSP decreased substantially from 1990 to 1993, stabilised at around 20–25% below the 1990 level between 1994 and 2000, and then fell to 36% below the 1990 level in 2001. This means that, in general, the amount of waste being disposed of for each dollar earned in NSW is decreasing.

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Municipal waste disposal and domestic kerbside recycling

Until the early 1990s, most municipal waste was disposed of to landfill or by incineration and only small quantities were recovered for recycling. Since then, rising community awareness and a growing demand for materials recovered at kerbside have led to higher recycling rates and substantially changed municipal waste disposal levels. In 2001, municipal waste disposal contributed 32% to the total NSW waste stream (see Figure 2.13). Per capita municipal waste disposal levels in NSW are now generally lower than reported national rates, typically between 250 and 300 kilograms per capita per year (kg/c/yr). In 2000–01, less than 20% of the NSW population generated more than 350 kg/c/yr of municipal waste (DLG 2003).

EPA domestic kerbside recycling data for the SMA shows that in 1991 only 8% of the waste generated in the region (or 30 kg/c/yr) was recycled. Since then, the scope of domestic kerbside recycling schemes has grown with the range of materials recovered expanding to include green waste from gardens and a range of other recyclable materials. By 2001, the per capita kerbside recycling figure for the SMA had risen to 85 kg/yr (see Figure 2.14).

Paper accounts for just under two-thirds of kerbside recycling in the SMA, glass around 27%, plastic 5%, steel 3% and aluminium cans less than 1%. This equated to each person in 2001 recycling approximately 54 kilograms of paper, 23 kg of glass containers, 5 kg of plastic containers, 2 kg of steel cans and less than 1 kg of aluminium cans each year.

Local government figures for 2001–02 show that 23% of the total municipal waste generated in NSW was recycled with 98% of the population having access to local government kerbside recycling schemes (DLG 2003).

Figure 2.14: Domestic kerbside recycling, SMA, 1991–2001

Figure 2.14

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Source: EPA data, as at December 2002

The increase in kerbside recovery of material reflects both the growing market for recycled materials and that local government is addressing the increasing collection, transport and disposal costs of managing domestic waste. The price instability of some recovered kerbside materials between 1995 and 1998 has also been addressed by longer term contracts, government/industry partnerships and initiatives for expanding the markets for recovered materials.

Green waste consists of garden, food and wood waste and comprises about 30% of the total waste stream. Recent EPA reports show that 350,000 tonnes of garden organics (garden, vegetation and wood waste only) were separated for reprocessing at NSW landfills in 2002. The SMA contributed about 200,000 tonnes of this, 100,000 tonnes came from the Hunter, Central Coast and Illawarra areas, and the rest from rural NSW. Only 8–9% of this waste is contaminated and has to be disposed of to landfill. This does not include home composting or the garden organics received by processing operations directly.

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Industry waste generation and recycling

The commercial and industrial (C&I) sector generates 46% of the total waste disposed of in the SMA and the construction and demolition (C&D) sector 22%. The nature of the wastes from these different sectors varies greatly, from sandstone tunnelling waste, for example, to hazardous liquid wastes from heavy industry. The majority of wastes generated by industry are non-hazardous and significant quantities are recycled into new products that have similar performance and cost to naturally sourced materials.

C&I waste is solid waste material collected from businesses such as retail, wholesaling, manufacturing and government, excluding building and demolition activities. Figure 2.13 shows that C&I waste disposed of dropped 42% between 1990 and 1993, but then rose moderately from 1995 to 1999, before a substantial increase in 2000. This may have been partly due to the disposal of non-recyclable material that councils collect as part of their recycling programs. For example, paper recycling produces a waste material that consists of plastics, foil and non-recoverable paper fibres and water. This material is classified as C&I waste when disposed from the materials recovery facilities but is actually sourced from kerbside paper collections. A similar situation exists for the non-recyclable plastic components of electrical whitegoods collected by councils for recycling which are also disposed of to landfills as C&I waste. In 2001, C&I waste levels dropped again, but it is unclear if this is a new trend.

The C&D waste sector's disposal rates generally increased steadily through the 1990s, although after a peak in 1998 there has been a small move down (see Figure 2.13). This may be attributable to the disposal of C&D wastes to landfills without weighbridges before 1997. After weighbridges became compulsory at all landfills in the SMA from that year, disposal rates began to rise rapidly until 1998 and then slow again after that. Disposal rates, however, remained higher in 2001 than they were in 1990.

Of the waste generated from building activity on an annual basis, approximately 10 million tonnes are reused or recycled, 2.5 million tonnes are reprocessed into building materials off-site, and 1 million tonnes are disposed of annually to landfills. Since 1998 the rate of recycling of C&D waste such as concrete, brick and tiles has grown. Concrete recycling has grown from 300,000 tonnes in 1996 to 1.2 million tonnes in 1999, replacing 10% of the virgin aggregate materials extracted from quarries. Most of the recycled concrete is used in road construction and maintenance (Pienmunne 2001).

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Response to the issue

Avoiding the creation of waste is generally seen as the best strategy for dealing with the problems it creates. Key responses to deal with waste include reducing the volume of waste reaching landfills, minimising the environmental impacts of waste facilities, and encouraging the development of new waste treatment and recycling facilities.

The NSW Government introduced the Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Act 2001 to build on the regulatory reforms and achievements of previous waste legislation. The Act established a new State Government agency, Resource NSW, to replace nine regional waste boards and take statewide responsibility for reducing waste disposal and litter. The NSW Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy was prepared under the Act and endorsed by the Government in February 2003. Partnership with industry is a cornerstone of the strategy, which sets targets, priorities for action and opportunities for collaboration. An Extended Producer Responsibility Priority Statement (EPA 2003) has also been released under the new legislation and identifies priority wastes that may be subject to mandatory extended producer responsibility schemes if industry performance does not improve.

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Initiatives to reduce waste

In the SMA and the extended regulated area of Newcastle, Central Coast and the Illawarra, waste facilities are required to pay a levy for waste deposited in their landfills. The purpose of the levy is to provide a financial disincentive for waste disposal and support waste avoidance and recycling. The levy will increase each year until it reaches $25 per tonne in 2002 dollars. An allocation of 55% of the income from the waste levy is made to the Waste Fu nd.

The Waste Fund supports the operation and waste reduction programs of Resource NSW; litter reduction and environmental education campaigns, such as Our Environment – It's a Living Thing; implementation of the Government's Waste Reduction and Purchasing Policy (WRAPP); the education program on illegal dumping; and the Government's obligations under the National Packaging Covenant (NPC). In 2001–02, the fund received $47.4 million. The final round of the Waste Reduction Grants Program was held in 2001–02 with $537,000 allocated to industry, government and community groups for waste avoidance and reuse projects in the C&I sector.

The NSW Government is a signatory to the NPC. The Used Packaging Materials Industry Waste Reduction Plan (IWRP) implements the National Environment Protection Measure for Used Packaging Materials in NSW and provides a regulatory safety net by requiring industries not participating in the NPC to recover and reuse their consumer packaging wastes. As part of its commitments under the NPC, the NSW Government has carried out public education and media campaigns on litter reduction; education about and enforcement of the IWRP; a review of NSW kerbside recycling service arrangements to assist local government with contract development and cost-sharing with industry; and monitoring, reporting and market development for recycled materials.

Other waste reduction initiatives have included:

  • the NSW Construction and Demolition Waste Action Plan (EPA 1998) including industry-developed specifications encouraging the routine use of recycled materials within road base and for soil on building sites
  • the Green Waste Action Plan (EPA 1997) with approximately 60% of local councils in the SMA now providing a separate garden organics collection service.

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Managing the environmental impacts of waste

Environmental requirements apply to a range of activities which generate waste, and need to transport, store and dispose of it. Recently introduced environmental requirements for waste activities include:

  • an amendment to Schedule 1 of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 which tightens the licensing requirements for applying organic waste to land
  • draft environmental guidelines, Composting and Related Organics Processing Facilities, released in February 2002.

The NSW Government is committed to achieving a consistent national approach to managing the transport and disposal of controlled wastes, as outlined in the National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) for Controlled Wastes.

Two collection schemes for chemical wastes also operate in NSW:

  • ChemCollect for unwanted agricultural and veterinary chemicals, with 408 tonnes of chemicals collected from 97 local government areas under the joint Commonwealth–State scheme (EPA data, as at May 2002)
  • industry's drumMUSTER program to collect and recycle empty, triple-rinsed, non-returnable agricultural chemical containers with over 3.7 million containers collected nationally by the end of June 2003 removing over 5778 tonnes of chemical container waste.

A $6-million anti-dumping package was announced in May 2002 with on-the-spot fines for illegal dumping doubling for individuals and more than tripling for corporations. Two public media campaigns – Litter. . .It's in your hands and Don't be a tosser – have also helped develop community awareness of litter and encourage litter reduction and changes in littering attitudes and behaviour. These activities support the tougher littering laws introduced in 2000.

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New treatment and recycling facilities

Resource recovery, which includes energy recovery, is central to the NSW Government's waste policies and also has a role in its greenhouse gas reduction strategies. The Government has supported the investigation and introduction of new waste treatment technologies as recommended by the Alternative Waste Management Technologies and Practices Inquiry (NSW Government 2000). It has also developed programs to reduce greenhouse gases through the Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA).

The increasing volume of waste material recovered by local councils and private collectors is also encouraging substantial investment in new recycling technologies such as:

  • a new recycling and waste-to-energy facility in Wollongong
  • a new paper mill at Tumut, which uses recovered newsprint
  • a PET plastic soft-drink recycling plant at Prestons in western Sydney
  • a municipal food and garden waste vermiculture plant in Lismore
  • a commercial food waste plant at Camellia in Sydney.

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Effectiveness of responses

NSW people have demonstrated a substantial commitment to waste recovery and recycling but the small decrease in overall waste generation levels suggests that further efforts are needed. The amount of waste disposed to landfills in the SMA decreased in 2001 to 3.9 million tonnes (see Figure 2.13). The volume of all three waste streams – municipal, C&I and C&D – also declined in 2001. The decrease in the amount of waste disposed of is partly explained by increased recycling and reuse of materials in response to the higher waste levy. Further decreases in the amount of waste disposed of to landfills are likely as new recycling facilities and technologies are introduced into the marketplace as an alternative to landfill disposal. For example, a new facility near Parramatta is likely to divert an additional 80,000 tonnes of commercial food waste each year.

The domestic kerbside recycling industry, which operated in a climate of crisis in the mid-1990s, is now stabilising as a result of Government-funded initiatives to develop markets and improve collection systems. Kerbside recycling now provides a significant net benefit to communities, estimated by the EPA at $42 per household per year or $266 million per year nationally (EPA 2001b).

Resource NSW programs addressing office paper avoidance and recycling, construction materials and other commercial wastes are also beginning to divert greater quantities of material away from landfills. In 2001 a review of WRAPP in 131 State Government agencies showed significant progress in the recycling of paper and printer toner cartridges, and the purchase of paper with a recycled content (see Table 2.5). Agency WRAPP plans have led to requirements to provide recycled content alternatives in contracts for the supply of paper and office machines totalling $50 million.

Table 2.5: Summary of WRAPP, 1998–2001

Waste type

Recycled 1998

Recycled 2001

Paper waste (tonnes)

38% (13,687)

82% (49,974)

Recycled toner cartridges used (number)

59% (24,470)

81% (97,641)

Vegetation waste (tonnes)


88% (67,290)

C&D waste (tonnes)


73% (7,567,972)

Source EPA data, as at 2002

Note: (a) No comparable data available for 1998

Growing levels of recycled materials are reducing demand for some raw natural materials. The impetus achieved by the NSW Construction and Demolition Waste Action Plan (EPA 1998) combined with higher landfill levies is encouraging the diversion of concrete, bricks and tiles from landfills. Recycling of concrete has grown from negligible quantities in 1992 to 1.2 million tonnes in 1999. Recycled concrete has replaced 10% of the virgin aggregate materials extracted from quarries and used in road construction in Sydney. Additionally, over 5% of natural aggregates have been replaced by about 850,000 tonnes of coarse blast furnace slag that is generated at Port Kembla steelworks each year. The use of recycled materials as aggregates is expected to extend the life of existing quarries (Pienmunne 2001). The mining of topsoil from valuable agricultural land in western Sydney has also been discontinued since establishment in the late 1990s of the market for manufactured soils, made by blending waste organics with uncontaminated sand, soil and clay.

Significant gains have been made under the Green Waste Action Plan (EPA 1997) through the combined efforts of the State Government, the waste boards, local councils, industry and the community. Segregated garden and vegetation waste received at landfills has increased 70% since 1998. In 2000, approximately 200,000 tonnes of segregated garden and vegetation material was received at SMA landfills. Of this, 90% was recovered for composting, recycling or reprocessing.

A review of the anti-littering education campaign showed unprecedented shifts in self-reported behaviour change following exposure to the Don't be a tosser campaign. The number of people reporting they had not littered after watching the campaign jumped from 44% to 81%.

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Future directions

Industry needs to examine costs, management practices and the environmental impacts of waste from their facilities and the downstream waste impacts of their products and services. Industries who cannot replace problematic materials used to make their products should investigate recovery and recycling schemes for their products. Products should be designed and manufactured to enable efficient disassembly so materials can be recycled. Larger waste generators and building managers should undertake audits of their waste stream to improve the information provided to waste management contractors.

Industries need also to seek opportunities to incorporate other municipal and commercial wastes within high volume materials, such as building materials, to minimise resource use and waste disposal. Examples include plastic lumber replacing treated timber, or used tyres as an alternative to existing building materials or as fuel substitutes.

Industries identified in the Extended Producer Responsibility Priority Statement (EPA 2003) should investigate ways to reduce the amount and/or impacts of their products in the waste stream. The statement identifies four wastes of concern that do not currently have a post-consumer management scheme: used tyres, computers, televisions and nickel cadmium batteries.

The waste collection and disposal industry needs to continue to develop and actively market systems for the separation of renewable materials from the waste stream. These systems will include source separation, post-collection sorting and alternative technology development for treatment prior to disposal.

Individuals should avoid generating waste where possible, reject wasteful packaging, compost green waste at home and use other recycling facilities where they are available. Purchasing decisions at individual or commercial levels should be made with recycled content as one of the criteria.

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Linked issues

2.1 Population and settlement patterns

2.3 Energy

2.7 Amenity

4.6 Chemical contamination: land

5.5 Groundwater quality

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