History of Waste

Aboriginal Australia​

Smith Wharf, 1900
Smith Wharf, 1900
Buckles Wharf, Blackwattle Bay, 1913
Buckles Wharf, Blackwattle Bay, 1913

Prior to European settlement the aboriginal population enjoyed a prolonged and prosperous occupation in most parts of Australia. Over tens of thousands of years extensive piles of discarded shells, fish bones and other animals and stone tools were created along the foreshores of lakes, rivers and beach dunes. These middens did not create any polluting impact on the landscape. They also represented careful husbanding of resources. Within a year of the First Fleet’s arrival in Sydney Cove the Europeans managed to greatly deplete the fish stocks of the harbour, denude the surrounding countryside of its vegetative cover, and scare off native wildlife.  They also mined the middens for lime to build European dwellings. Today middens are protected heritage sites of great cultural and historical significance.

The freshwater stream feeding into Sydney Cove was used as a fresh water source by the local Gadigal clan for thousands of years. Upon colonisation by the British, the stream becomes a toilet/laundry, too polluted for drinking water. In 1781, Governor Phillip ordered the stream to be enclosed in sandstone, creating what is known to today as the Tank Stream, which still runs under the city.

Frederick St Open Tip, Sydney, 1927
Frederick St Open Tip, Sydney, 1927

18th and 19th century England

Refuse was big business for the poor in Regency England. Household and early industrial waste was dumped directly into the streets and rivers, allowing many people to make a living by selling what they could find in other people’s rubbish. Even dogs’ dung was valuable as it was used by tanners for purifying leather. Toshers worked in the sewers, which was a dangerous, smelly and yet quite lucrative way to make a living as coins, bits of metal, ropes and sometimes jewellery were often discarded. ‘Mud-larks’ scavenged on the river banks, and made a very poor living. ‘Dustmen’ collected the ash from coal fires for reuse.

Early European Australia

In colonial Sydney of the late 18th and early 19th century, citizens were expected to dispose of their own refuse. The population and size of the cities and towns was relatively small and domestic waste was mostly organic – kitchen slops, sewage, broken crockery, old shoes and worn out clothing. For many, the solution was a cesspit or privy which was dug into the yard space behind the main house. Lime or carbolic acid was added to break down the material and to reduce the smell. Due to the short supply of many materials there was extensive recycling.

19th Century

As the cities and towns grew, waste disposal became a major problem for state and local governments due to health concerns. There were open tips on unusable local grounds, but later the waste was used for land reclamation to fill in estuaries at the headwaters of streams at locations such as Darling Harbour, where a rail network was created. The practice of ocean dumping also became common in the latter part of the century and continued into the early 20th century, taking waste five miles out to sea. Beaches were often fouled by contaminated tidal inflow. Nevertheless, there was some recycling particularly by those less well off. Bottles for milk, beer and soft drinks were refilled, newspapers were collected for reuse as packaging, old clothes were handed down, repaired or converted into other items such as quilts, and broken furniture; toys, shoes and utensils were repaired. Food waste was used for compost or animal feed.

Pyrmont Incinerator Walter Burley Griffin designed 1938 in use until 1971
Pyrmon Incinerator 1935
Pyrmon Incinerator 1935
1976 View from Glebe Island Bridge 1976. The incinerator stacks can be seen in the background on the left

Early 20th Century​

When Bubonic Plague broke out in Sydney in 1901, the hygienic disposal of rubbish became a key public health concern. Incineration, which had been used in England since 1847 was introduced as the most effective solution. A destructor was built at Moore Park, Sydney in 1901 alongside the tip. Prahran Council in Melbourne built a destructor that produced energy for a 125kW generator in 1910. Another destructor was built at Pyrmont on Sydney Harbour in 1910 and upgraded in 1937. By the early 1930s, the Commonwealth Government legislated that rubbish dumpers at sea had to travel 15 miles past the shore. This made incineration an increasingly attractive option for many municipalities. At least 18 incinerators were built in Australia. However, pollution control was primitive, and neighbouring areas were often exposed to soot and dust. It was a common practice for many households and unit blocks to burn their rubbish including plastics in the backyard or in small incinerators. It wasn’t until the late 20th and early 21st century that it was banned or restricted due to pollution problems.

Up to World War 2​

Prior to WW2, open tips and incinerators were still the most popular solution to waste, although waste paper collections from households and factories had started in Melbourne in the 1920s. More common cart and horse collections of newspaper from households began in Australia in the 1940s. This paper was typically re-used or recycled into packaging material. During WW2 there was a great demand for resources such as metal, paper and rubber and much was retrieved for the war effort. However, these recycling practises faded after the war.

Scouts collecting rubber for the war


Land reclamation for building new suburbs spread to include the steep gullies fronting beaches. Engineered landfills based on US army techniques from WW2 began to be more commonly adopted (and are still used today). Industrial waste was placed in engineered bays where it was compressed to reduce air, and covered with a layer of soil or clay. Unlike today, they were not lined with an impervious material to prevent leakage into groundwater and streams, setting the scene for ongoing pollution. Incinerators were still in use until the 1990s. Waste volumes grew apace with economic prosperity as the population expanded and consumption increased. Industrial waste, including plastics and chemicals were collected with household rubbish by local councils.

1960s and 70s

In the 1960s and 1970s municipal councils stopped taking industrial waste at their garbage tips. Some was dumped in the ocean from barges or via the sewerage system or into private landfills. Substantial but undocumented amounts were illegally disposed of in bushland. These methods created a major environmental problem, as land reclamation continued. About one third of the Homebush Bay site was filled to a depth of between 0.5 and 4 metres with material from demolition to industrial and household wastes. A major clean-up was required before the area could be utilised by the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Since most of the filling happened without supervision no records were kept of the location or type of wastes that were buried on the site. Heavy metals, asbestos contamination and chemical wastes including dioxins and pesticides, have all been found in the area.

The introduction of disposable beverage containers by drink companies in the 1970s led to the end of refillable glass containers and deposit refunds. In 1974 the Commonwealth Parliament Environment and Conservation Committee reported that “a growing proportion of beverage containers are thrown away or non-returnable. These products are conspicuous in litter and as such constitute a special disposal problem for municipal authorities charged with keeping our highways, shopping centres, streets and recreational areas free of visual pollution.”
Increasing public concern about litter saw the Committee recommend retention of the deposit-refund system and a tax on non-returnable containers. However, the recommendation was ignored, and soon the refillable assembly lines were shut down in all states except South Australia, and only throw-away containers were available. Consequently, over 6 billion containers are now littered or dumped into landfill every year.
By the mid-1970s all Sydney councils were using landfill with the exception of the recently established Waverley-Woollahra incinerator. Also in 1974 a temporary liquid waste site began operation at Castlereagh in Western Sydney. It was expected to operate for 2-3 years but continued until contamination leaching into the neighbourhood outside the site prompted a community campaign, and it was closed in 1998.
The 1970s saw an explosion of public concern about the protection of the environment and interest in recycling grew. The only major recycled product by the end of the 1970s was paper – about 30% of consumption was collected. There were embryonic attempts by a few local councils in Melbourne (eg Shire of Knox) and Sydney (such as Blacktown) to install recycling centres to which the community could voluntarily bring glass, metal and paper. In 1975 Canterbury Council was the first municipality to begin separating some recyclable material from household waste.

1980s and 90s

As the capital cities expanded, it became clear that they lacked city-wide waste management plans. Many tips were unregulated and run by private operators leading to calls for greater government control and central management. It was also believed tip space would run out in the next decade or two and various attempts were made to locate new sites, including some for more incinerators. Various waste planning agencies further considered recycling would help and proposed trialling ‘material recovery facilities’ but the main focus was still on landfills.

Campbelltown Uniting Church can collection

In the late 80’s and early 90’s many local councils began kerbside collections where households separated out recyclables such as paper and glass. The cost of the service was subsidised by waste rates and a state government ‘waste levy’, with some revenue from sale of the recyclate. Households needed to be educated about this new practice, which has become commonplace today.  Nevertheless there is still some confusion about what can be recycled (especially as new packaging comes onto the market) and there is a degree of contamination of recyclate.

Throughout the 1980’s the highly successful ‘Do the Right Thing’ advertising campaign was created to educate the public about litter. After 1994 community groups were encouraged to collect aluminium cans for recycling when the smelting companies agreed to pay for their high scrap value (‘Cash 4 Cans’) and recovery rates rapidly increased. Newspaper publishers also agreed to pay for newsprint collected by councils thus helping to fund kerbside collections. Collection rates for both materials rose to about 65%. At the beginning of the 90’s, the amount of waste generated by each person (taking account of all economic activity) was about 1 tonne a year.

In the latter half of the 1990’s governments began setting increasingly ambitious recycling targets in response to community concern about pollution and the increasingly obvious waste of finite resources. Also as a signatory to Agenda 21, from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Australia committed to waste minimisation, environmentally sound waste reuse and recycling, and environmentally sound waste treatment and disposal.

In 1989 Sydney, the recycling rate had been 17%. In 1990 the Waste Management Authority proposed to lift that to 25% by 2011.  After the 1995 State Election this was increased to 60% by 2000. Other states adopted targets of 50% in line with the Commonwealth Government’s ‘National Waste Minimisation and Recycling Strategy’. Because the federal government lacked legal powers and still considered that waste management was a state matter, a variety of new legal and policy instruments were introduced by each state leading to a mix of approaches.

At this time, a significant new policy emerged in Europe called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), defined by the OECD as “an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility, physical and/or financial, for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle”. Whilst EPR initiatives (such as the 1994 EC Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste) were put in place, Australia was a slow adopter.

2000 to now

Most households now have a selection of three bins (left to rightL for recyclables, residual and green waste). There are some problem with contamination in the yellow bin from broken glass and food scraps which mix with the paper.
Most households now have a selection of three bins (left to right) for recyclables, residual and green waste). There are some problem with contamination in the yellow bin from broken glass and food scraps which mix with the paper.

By 2007 overall recycling had reached 52% including commercial, demolition and industrial waste, but the rest which accounted for over 20m tonnes, was landfilled. Municipal waste recycling reached about 40%. Organic waste became the biggest fraction in Australia’s waste stream with only 32% recycled.

Today millions of tonnes of usable food worth several billion dollars is dumped each year. There has been a big expansion in separated kerbside collections and of material recovery facilities which are usually the first drop-off point for waste collections. Domestic and export markets for recycled materials such as China are now rejecting Australian waste. Products begin to state how much recycled material is used in order to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. The recycling industry is worth up to $11.5b and employs 41,000 people directly and indirectly.

The amount of waste generated by each person, however, has now reached 2 tonnes a year, reflecting increased economic activity and consumption of resources and less efficient use of resources and more wastage. The percentage of waste being recycled has mainly kept pace with the increase in waste volumes since 2000. With the amount of waste being dumped growing even higher, recycling is needed as landfills run out of space. Targets of over 70% and even more are being proposed. There is also increasing concern about products such as e-waste and batteries that contain toxic chemicals.

Over the past decade, environment groups such as Total Environment Centre and Boomerang Alliance have reinvigorated recycling campaigns to tackle the growing tide of e-waste (with over 200 million items on their way to landfill and recycling at only 5%). They also pushed for container deposit-refunds; a national recycling initiative; composting of organic waste; and increased waste levies. Some of the campaigns remain on-going, but significant wins are producer responsibility schemes for computers and TVs (e-waste) in 2012, and recovery of used tyres.

In response to the explosion of packaging waste, industry convinced governments to support the National Packaging Covenant (NPC, now APC) in late 1999, a largely voluntary scheme that avoided regulation such as container deposit-refund schemes. While packaging recycling grew to about 62% overall by 2010, the majority is paper/cardboard (by weight) and almost all material is still collected via kerbside recycling that is independent of and not financially supported by the NPC. Recycling of glass is 49% and plastic packaging is 37%. Drink containers consumed away-from-home (eg, at food halls and at events) is in the low 20%s.

The National Waste Policy issued in 2009, signalled a major development, being only the second policy since 1992. It aimed to harmonise state approaches and for the first time laid the ground for a national law the Product Stewardship Act 2011 under which voluntary, co-regulatory or mandatory schemes could be regulated. The first co-regulatory scheme was for e-waste with industry funding collection centres, drop-off days and recycling.

Landfilling became much more expensive with the introduction of waste levies and most states now apply the levy on anything that is landfilled. This means environmental costs are better priced and recycling is more competitive. NSW has the highest levy, which pushed up landfill gate fees to $200 tonne by 2014 (with ongoing cpi increases). It has been most successful with the heavier wastes such as demolition waste (now reaching 73% recycling). Other lighter materials such as plastics and organics mainly from households are not financially impacted as much. Additional policies are being considered and with some trials by councils, such as composting for green and kitchen waste and a controversial return to modern incineration (called waste to energy).

Total Environment Centre and Boomerang Alliance has seen huge success with its campaign for a national container deposit refund scheme (CDS). NSW implemented container deposit-refunds late in 2017, with QLD, ACT and WA following in 2018/19.

There has also been a renewed push with huge popular support to ban single use plastic bags. Over 180 million bags are littered each year, disrupting waterways and causing significant loss of life and suffering to marine wildlife. Also of growing scientific concern is the trillions of microplastics entering our waterways from a variety of waste plastic including bags, bottles, synthetic clothes, and microbeads in cosmetics and cleaning products. No one really knows what the long-term consequences of ingesting these particles, which have no nutrient value, will be, but the predictions are not good.  The 2016 Senate report, ‘The Toxic Tide’ suggested there was a ”looming health crisis’ as the microplastics entered the food chain and hundreds of marine species were contaminated.

We have come along way since Europeans first began to pollute pristine Australia  But we can no longer plead ignorance. Growing public awareness of the threat to our ecosystems and our very survival means that zero waste and maximum resource recovery will become the defining principles of the 21st century.

See Total Environment Centre Campaigns for the latest campaign efforts or visit Boomerang Alliance to support marine plastic pollution reduction campaign.