Australians generate a lot of rubbish, as do the people of all advanced economies (and increasingly, the people of less advanced and developing economies). In 2016-17, Australian businesses and households generated 68.9 mega tonnes (Mt) of waste, from a vast range of locally produced and imported goods and services. This equates to 2.8 tonnes of waste per person per year in Australia.
So where does all this waste come from? What is it? And perhaps most importantly, where does it go?
To assist in answering these questions, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has estimated the volume of Australia’s waste (by weight) as part of its development of national environmental-economic accounts. These data bring together information about the environment and its relationship with our outputs and consumption.
The data visualisation below (a “Sankey diagram”) shows:
- Where our waste is generated, including utilities, businesses (e.g. waste by-products of their output), households (e.g. organic and packaging waste), farms and other locations;
- The types of waste that is generated, measured by the weight of each category of waste; and
- The destinations of Australia’s waste, which indicates its final fate.
Where is our waste generated?
The ABS estimates that in 2016-17, the largest source of waste generation in Australia was the construction industry, with 20.4 Mt of waste, followed by households with 13.8 Mt of waste. For businesses, the industry that produces the waste as a by-product of their outputs is not necessarily the business, person or household that consumes the final product. For example, ‘waste’ generation in the utilities sector included 12.3Mt of ash, which is a by-product from coal-fired power plants. The electricity generated by these power-plants is not consumed by the power company itself, but by all of its downstream customers. Ultimately, almost all goods and services are consumed by individuals and households (final consumption), rather than by businesses and companies (intermediate consumption).
What type of waste do we generate?
The middle section of the data visualisation above shows the various types of waste generated in 2016-17. By clicking on each type of material, you can see how much of each type of waste came from each source location (industries and households), and its most likely destination.
For example, Australians generated 15.1 Mt of organic waste (including food, gardening and timber waste) in 2016-17, with 7.0 Mt coming directly from households. Of this 15.1 Mt of organic waste, 6.7 Mt ended up in domestic recycling and 5.1 Mt ended up in landfill (about one third of it).
Where does our waste go?
The ABS has estimated the final destination of Australia’s waste for 2016-17. This is shown on the right-hand side of the data visualisation.
The ABS estimates that most of Australia’s waste is directed into domestic recycling, which refers to “the collection and sorting of waste intended for secondary use in domestic production.” The ABS data do not estimate the actual or final recycling volumes, nor do they indicate the end-products that are made from recycled materials (e.g. road surfaces, plastic garden furniture, or recycled paper products). A further 9.8 Mt (14%) of waste went back into manufacturing, mainly in the form of waste by-products such as ash or crushed masonry rubble. 1.7 Mt (2%) went to other (non-manufacturing) sectors as inputs to their own production of new goods and services.
The ABS estimates that 4.1 Mt of waste (6% of the total) was exported from Australia in 2016-17, including 2.1 Mt of metals, 1.5 Mt of paper & cardboard and remainder including other materials such as plastics and glass.
This exported waste stream is reported to have increased since 2016-17, despite bans by China on the importation of 24 types of recyclable materials that can contaminate waste imports from January 2018. This ban has severely reduced China’s importation of waste for recycling but seems to have increased Australia’s waste exports to other Asian destinations. These Chinese restrictions are starting to be copied by several other countries that also import waste streams globally.
China’s waste importation ban has put enormous pressure on Australia’s local waste collection, storage and recycling capabilities. The recent Senate Committee Report into Australia’s waste recycling capabilities notes “the data around waste generation and diversion remains notoriously poor” and concludes that “from collection through to sorting, there has been a focus on quantity rather than quality. The increase in recycling rates, as measured by weight, have masked the underlying problems associated with this approach and the increase in waste generation.”
Waste disposal and recycling is already big business in Australia, but national capacity needs to be bigger if more of Australia’s waste is to be fully repurposed, from end to end. Modelling by the Centre for International Economics (2017) suggests that a 5% increase in Australia’s recycling rate could add $1 billion to Australia’s gross domestic product each year. This would require improvement in both the quality and quantity of recycling. A broad public education campaign may also be required, to help the public understand how and why they should support local waste processing and recycling industries.
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