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The Australian waste mountain and the route to zero-landfill

The National Waste Report 2020

In 2018-19 Australia generated an estimated 74.1 million tonnes (Mt) of waste, including 22.9 Mt of masonry materials, 14.3 Mt of organics, 12.5 Mt of ash, 7.8 Mt of hazardous waste (mainly contaminated soil), 5.9 Mt of paper and cardboard, 5.6 Mt of metals and 2.5 Mt of plastics. This is equivalent to 2.94 tonnes (t) per capita.

In 2018-19 there were about 61.5 Mt of ‘core waste’ (those wastes managed by the waste and resource recovery sector) generated, or 2.44 t per capita. This is up from 57.3 Mt in 2016-17. Headline numbers shows that the 2018-19 materials comprised:

  • 12.6 Mt of municipal solid waste (MSW) from households and local government activities (500 kg per capita and 20% of the total)
  • 21.9 Mt from the commercial and industrial (C&I) sector (36% of the total)
  • 27.0 Mt from the construction and demolition (C&D) sector (44% of the total).

Over the 13-year period for which data is available, total waste generation increased by 11.3 Mt (18%). Assessed on a per capita basis, waste declined by 3.3% over this timeframe. MSW generation fell by 20% per capita and C&I waste by 15% per capita, while C&D waste grew by 32% per capita.

Key sectors that will catalyse the Australian circular economy:

In order to address the waste streams which need to be diverted from landfill (in tonnes) and achieve zero landfill, the order of priority is shown in the following chart:

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ latest Experimental Waste Account statistics show that Australia generated over 75 million tonnes of waste in 2018-19. They also show the four materials — glass, plastics, tyres, and paper and cardboard — on the export ban list represented 32 percent, or 1.5 million tonnes, of the total 4 million tonnes of waste exported that year: which has ignited momentum for substantial new investment in Australian recycling infrastructure. 

Looking beyond our exported waste, there is an even more significant onshore opportunity for materials recovery and emissions reduction that is five times the size of the waste export market: the 20 million tonnes of materials that go to landfill every year in Australia. 

Thoughts for 2021 (from NSW Circular)

To capitalise on these circular economy opportunities for materials recovery, further research is important to inform the development of new sustainable markets for recycled products to solve both technical and non-technical problems. As a start, NSW Circular has established a research taskforce bringing together key NSW universities and research organisations to work together to remove barriers to the circular economy. 

With the new year, there has never been a better time to focus on turning our waste problem into an opportunity for a stronger, more sustainable Australian economy. 

CSIRO has already produced a  Circular economy roadmap for plastics, glass, paper and tyres

CSIRO has set out this roadmap after in-depth interviews with 83 stakeholders, a review of the national and international literature, and testing the viability of options in the Australian economic and regulatory context. It sets out specific industry initiatives to retain and maintain the quality of primary materials, improve collection and sorting systems, and build the national capacity to reprocess all four waste materials.

These actions for the material flow must be supported by a harmonisation of national governance, sharper development of new markets and business models, and most of all a shift towards a ‘zero waste’ culture. The next steps needed to advance this vision may be to: • convene through the National Cabinet a mechanism to harmonise the governance of material flows, as part of its pursuit of a national circular economy strategy

  • facilitate a national summit to refine this roadmap into a clear and agreed national strategy, and to secure responsibilities for it
  • establish metrics and baseline data to track the loss of materials
  • inject the principle of the circular economy into Australia’s innovation funding, initiatives and objectives
  • fund demonstration projects of closed loop industry, particularly in the regions
  • link with one or more other countries with similar or complementary material economies, to inspire ideas and commitment for those leading the national effort.

The importance and willingness to embark on the journey towards zero landfill has already been stated clearly in a report from a Federal Senate Committee chaired by Mr. Barnaby Joyce:

This report addresses the dilemma in some way that the rubbish a nation creates in 2020 must be effectively, efficiently and sustainably dealt with by the nation that creates it.  No one is going to put up with our garbage anymore. Finding big old holes in the ground to throw it in is a poor reflection of a nation that wishes to present itself as a clever country.

Organic rubbish can become fertiliser and methane for power. Plastic can become plastic again, steel returns to steel. But some waste is vastly more complex to deal with. How many years has the, at first view, simple task of recycling old tyres alluded us on a wide scale commercial basis? Burying things should be the last option so if you cannot develop the end use technology to recycle then we must change the initial component parts and technology at the manufacturing of a product. The nation must develop the front-end technology so we can recycle at the end.  

In this task of waste management, the nation must be effective in delivering a unified approach across states. It would be inefficient and cumbersome for there to be two different policies either side of the Tweed River for instance. Additionally, policy should not reach so far into domestic or small business that the encumbrance and overhead creates, not a vision for a better environment but a resentment against an excessive government.”

The potential for “The Green Recovery: how Australia can close the recycling loop” is illustrated in this video from The Guardian: The Green Recovery

The substantial efforts recorded above by Blue Environment Pty Ltd, Dr Kar Mei Tang (NSW Circular), CSIRO and Mr Barnaby Joyce and his Senate Committee are gratefully acknowledged. As the NSW 20-Year Waste Strategy is unveiled we can place a continued effort in promoting the Hunter Region as an ideal location to make a major contribution to the National strategy to achieve zero landfill.