Australians are among the world’s largest producers of waste. With the exception of the USA, Australia produces more waste per person each year than any other country. We are a highly consumerist society driven by what we want just as much as by what we need. The millions of tonnes of waste disposed of into our environment every year are symbolic of our presently unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

Many of Australia’s major urban centres seem to be in a continual state of growth, expanding to accommodate their residents and the high standard of living they enjoy. Sophisticated waste disposal systems are therefore required to deal with the enormous quantities of ensuing rubbish and pollution. Finding sustainable methods of waste disposal, while simultaneously upholding the comforts of Australians’ current lifestyles, is no simple feat. It has been estimated that each day Australians produce about 3 kilograms of waste per person. This waste can be in the form of solid (or dry) waste, liquid waste, or gaseous waste. As urban growth continues to take hold in many of Australia’s capital cities, our levels of all these types of waste, combined with the problems created when it comes to disposing of them, are constantly increasing.

Key waste disposal issues

As levels of waste in a community increase the amenity (or liveability) of that community declines. Waste therefore needs to be disposed of in ways which minimise its negative impacts. Much of the waste humans produce is not bio-degradable (or decomposable). Even with increased public awareness of waste issues and a greater level of general recycling, Australia’s level of per capita waste production is not declining. Household waste generation in Perth, for example, grew by approximately 30 per cent between 1998 and 2002. Australia’s major waste disposal issues are outlined below.

Solid waste and limited landfills

Disposing of solid waste, such as household garbage and industrial by-products, has traditionally involved dumping it in a landfill (commonly referred to as a ‘tip’). The use of landfills as a waste disposal method does, however, present a number of environmental management problems. Finding new and appropriate landfill sites is becoming much more difficult and the concept of a landfill itself is not sustainable, as it will not last forever. See image 1

In Sydney, for example, the problem of finding new landfill sites has led to suggestions that the city’s waste could be dumped in other areas of the State, such as at an abandoned mine near the regional town of Goulburn. Approximately 250 kms south-west of the city, using this landfill as a method of waste management would essentially increase Sydney’s already large ‘ecological footprint’. This is the total amount of land required by a city to accommodate for the needs of its residents (refer to Chapter Two).

Liquid waste and polluted waterways

Sewage effluent (run-off) and other household waste that is produced, for example, by dishwashing and car washing detergents, are all categorised as liquid waste. Liquid waste is also produced by industrial processes and can include toxic chemicals. Most liquid wastewater is disposed of in coastal regions and only about one per cent is recycled. Proposals to introduce domestic wastewater recycling systems to service urban areas are currently receiving much more attention in Australia, as the problems of liquid waste disposal and availability of drinking water supplies are simultaneously presenting concerns for residents in many parts of the country.

Solid waste is also another contributing factor to polluted waterways. Around six billion tonnes of waste is discarded into oceans around the world each year. The majority of this rubbish is some form of plastic matter. Common examples are shopping bags, drink bottles, fishing equipment and polystyrene materials (such as tea and coffee cups). The amount of plastic waste found in our oceans poses a major threat to marine wildlife. Many species can suffocate and die if they consume plastic or become entangled in other forms of debris dumped at sea, such as abandoned fishing nets. See image 2

Gaseous waste and air pollution

Our increasing levels of energy consumption have also resulted in higher levels of atmospheric waste, mainly in the form of harmful greenhouse gases. Although this type of waste may not be as visible as solid or liquid waste, air pollutants pose no less threat to humans. Australia does not boast a good track record when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, which is mainly due to the fact that coal, oil and natural gas are our three major sources of energy. All of these naturally occurring non-renewable resources are contributors to the greenhouse effect and global warming.

Hazardous waste

Sometimes referred to as ‘toxic waste’, hazardous waste is that which requires special handling when being disposed of because of the threat it poses to humans and the environment. Nuclear waste is an example of hazardous waste. Much of the controversy surrounding the use of nuclear energy has arisen because there is still no known effective way of disposing of the radioactive waste generated. Mismanagement of this type of waste can be detrimental to living organisms. See image 3

Thinking about waste

A factor contributing to Australia’s waste problem is the way in which we conceptualise (think about) rubbish and our established patterns of production and consumption, which are presently unsustainable. A dominant mentality has emerged that waste does not really affect us, as long as it can be hidden away in a landfill or washed down the drain. Adopting a more considered (or more conscious) attitude towards the waste we produce and what is done with it is essential. Not only will a change in waste disposal methods improve our environment aesthetically, it will also help to restore biodiversity and improve the quality of our land, air and water. See animation 1

Sustainable waste management initiatives

Questions surrounding the issue of waste disposal have traditionally received a great deal of attention. It is becoming more apparent, however, that the focus needs to be on the more sustainable goals of waste minimisation and waste recovery – reducing, reusing and recycling our waste. These goals are much more in line with the principles of ecological sustainability and have the potential to significantly reduce human impact on the environment.