Waste in Australia


Friday 5 March is Schools Clean Up Day and Sunday 7 March is Clean Up Australia Day 2021. In 2019, more than 700 000 volunteers collectively spent more than 1.4 million hours cleaning up Australia at 7 798 registered sites. These dedicated citizens removed more than 17 million ute loads of rubbish from the environment. If people can pick up that much rubbish on one day, how much waste does Australia produce every year?

What a waste!

Most people think about waste in terms of their household waste. This is the waste we individually sort and manage, but it is only 17% of the national waste stream. In 2018-2019 (most recent data available), Australia produced 74.1 million tonnes (Mt) of waste – 2.94 tonnes per person. The composition of this waste is shown in the graph.

Australia’s largest waste stream is from construction and demolition (C & D). Masonry makes up 22.7 Mt of C & D waste. (data from National Waste Report 2020)

The staggering amount of waste shown in the graph is ‘core waste’ – materials managed by the waste and resource recovery sector. However, some industries manage their own waste. Mining waste was estimated at 502Mt in 2018-2019. This waste is managed on site by mining companies. The vast majority (83%) is deposited in tailings dams and the remainder is used to fill mining voids. Other waste managed by industry includes fisheries by-catch, forestry waste, and agricultural waste.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?

Sir David Attenborough says the most important thing we can do for the planet is to avoid waste. We can do this by avoiding purchases we don’t really need, buying items that will last a long time, repairing broken items and choosing products with minimal packaging. Consumers can drive this change by making smart choices and governments can help with legislation that requires manufacturers to take responsibility for the entire life of a product, from manufacture to disposal. This is known as a circular economy.

As we work toward a sustainable future, we need to move from the linear model of resource use and disposal to a circular model where resources are reused, remade and recycled. (C Weetman 2016, Creative Commons)

Reuse is better than recycling because it requires no energy to re-process the waste. Examples include using washed food containers for storage or purchasing second-hand items.

Overall, 60% of Australia’s waste is recycled. Estimated recovery rates for different products are:

  • 90% of metals
  • 82% of masonry materials
  • 66% of paper and cardboard
  • 60% of organics
  • 59% of glass and 47% of ash

Plastic has the lowest recovery rate at just 15%. Recycling metals saves an enormous amount of energy and avoids large quantities of mine waste. There are no energy savings with recycled masonry but avoiding more than 18 Mt of landfill makes recycling very worthwhile.

Scrap metal is a valuable resource. Recycling metal takes as little as 5% of the energy that it takes to produce new metal and helps to avoid mining waste. (M Buckawicki 2013, Creative Commons)

Make a difference

You reduce Australia’s waste problem every time you choose not to buy an unnecessary item, reuse a container, fix a broken possession, or pick an item with no or minimal packaging. Choosing goods made with recycled materials, planning meals to reduce food waste, drinking tap water out of your own reusable bottle and bringing your own bag to the shops are more ways to reduce waste.

Looking after the waste you create is also important: composting food scraps, sorting household waste and taking recyclable items such as computers and other e-waste to Council waste depots. By looking after waste, we minimise the amount in landfill, keep recyclable materials in use as long as possible and avoid polluting the environment with litter.

Finally, you can get involved in Clean Up Australia by signing up for a registered event or picking up rubbish in your local area. Every piece of rubbish you pick up improves the environment and reduces pollution.

Everyone can get involved in Clean Up Australia. Find more information on their website. (Tim Levy, Clean Up Australia)

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