Optimising Australia’s Waste Management

The history of Waste Management has been one of disposal rather than recovery. The business model has been based around taking discarded material and ‘putting it in a hole’. As such, landfill sites have proliferated around the country, and the world while our resources steadily dwindle from the strain of making virgin materials.

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Australia produces around 44 million tonnes of waste per year, and manages to recover roughly 50%. Thus we are sending around 22 million tonnes to landfill each year. This material has an estimated market value of $2.5 billion. ABS website, media release, (2011).

The core problem is that due to the way the contracts are divided, insufficient quantities are collected to make their recovery cost effective. Thus proper disposal is not always in the user’s financial interest, and much recoverable material escapes.

It should be noted at the outset that much of the data in this field is scarce. This highlights an underlying problem of perception with the industry: ‘Waste’ isn’t even considered worth documenting.

Thus our national quantities were determined by extrapolating from State averages and other reported values where they were available. A simple spread sheet allowed us to take the average from multiple data points.

So while they are approximate, when cross checked with national totals, the aggregate figures more or less corresponded with the expected and stated totals, within a 5–10% degree of accuracy.

The figures in the table at the back of the appendix list can therefore give us a reasonably complete breakdown to base our assessment on.


In Australia, local councils and businesses negotiate with over 2,000 different waste companies. This means that the waste streams are determined by whatever the company that services that area happens to do, rather than what is best for society. Different regions are sliced up into inelegant service routes, based not on optimal overall efficiency, but dictated by the bounds of contract. This means the quantities are often insufficient to make their recovery economically viable. The total cost to society is $8.2 billion per year, measured as the total income of all those companies combined. (abs.gov.au)

So in some areas, such as Waverly council, they have 4 streams: One for landfill, one for glass/plastic/metal recycling, one for paper recycling, and one for garden trimmings. While over the hill in Coogee, all recycling goes into one co-mingled stream, one for landfill including kitchen organics, and one for garden organics. In Penrith, however, they separate the food scraps, as they now do in Woollahra. Meanwhile at UNSW, paper goes into the landfill stream, plastic and glass get recycled together, and there is no organic separation. In the CBD however, there is just 1 stream, which all goes to landfill. Except in some train stations, where they separate the paper. Pictures of these are below.

So just there, in not more than a 5km radius, you have 5 different waste separation procedures. This gives the public a disjointed view of waste management, which prohibits a proper understanding of the process and the values of materials. More directly, however, it lets a lot of material slip through the cracks, amounting to 22 million tonnes of material, with an estimated market value of roughly $2.5 billion dollars.

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“Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there”. Many of the true costs of landfill are unseen, yet have real and negative consequences

Like many environmental issues, the external costs of landfilling this quantity of material were not noticed until recently. As a resource, landfill capacity seemed infinite. And the same was thought of the natural resources we draw on to manufacture new things. We could make things indefinitely, and we could throw things away indefinitely. Both of those turned out to be catastrophically wrong. It is an open system in a finite world, and the external social costs soon started adding up.

Landfills pose many serious threats to society, mostly in the form of toxic leachates escaping into the water supply, and Greenhouse Gases emitted through their decomposition. The leachates are very difficult to quantify and value, but the emissions we have hard data: 13 MT CO2e. — roughly 3% of Australia’s total. abs.gov.au (2010)

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Who wants some tyres? No one, that’s the problem. No one in this usually brilliant free market has found the collection of these particular tyres to be of any financial value. So they are simply dumped. And since the costs are spread out over the whole society, the dumpers feel as though they have not incurred any other cost themselves. It is essentially a ‘free rider’ dilemma, where the dumpers get away without incurring the true costs.

The most dangerous materials, however, come from electronic items. These contain substantial amounts of toxic materials — such as arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, zinc, copper, lead, silver and gold. Measurements show these elements appearing at dangerous levels in the groundwater surrounding landfills. Water leaching from landfills also contains polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), flame-retardant chemicals found in many electronic products. PBDEs belong to the class of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and can be highly toxic to both humans and the environment. South Australian Government website (2009).

Since these are often near agricultural areas, it is too easy for them to then enter the food chain. The societal costs of these things are very difficult to quantify. Poisoning a water supply could easily run into the billions, and have devastating effects on all industries, especially through agriculture.

At the other end of the chain, however, is the problem of manufacturing new materials from virgin resources. With an exponentially growing population, this is a serious issue, as we use materials at a faster rate than ever before, and need more energy to transform them into the products we use.


But even if we were to keep the dangerous elements out of landfills, as they sit there non toxically they still decompose and release Greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Ratios vary, but 1 tonne of landfill will typically release around 0.8 tonnes of CO2e, over 1–5 years. NGER National inventory report (2009).

Thanks to modern gas capture technologies however, some landfills are able to capture this gas. The proportion has grown from ~25% in 2009 to as high as 40% in 2012. Some of it is used for indstro-chemical processes, the vast majority is simply burned to heat water to make steam to spin turbines to generate electricity. DCC (2008)

However, this still leaves about 11 million tonnes of CO2e being released into our atmosphere each year. These gasses accelerate the warming effect of the atmosphere, contributing to a global warming effect, which can have catastrophic effects on the world’s ecosystems. UNCCC (2011)

The WMAA reports that only 48 out of 446 landfill sites have either energy recovery or gas flaring. Those 48 sites however, are the biggest ones, and process around 45% of the total waste generated.

This shows that the problem is with economies of scale. Small landfills do not have the capacity to generate enough gas to makes its capture cost effective. There are too many small landfills doing too little, and as a result, 55% of our waste is rotting away un captured.

If this haphazard network were consolidated and coordinated, recovery of gasses for energy could be as much as 80–90%. Even assuming minimal landfill amounts, this could produce as many as 1.5 billion kwH, with a market value of $260 million.

The cost of transporting the material back and forth along inefficiently allocated and disorganised routes is not inconsequential either, estimated at 250,000 tonnes cO2e. Picken (2009).


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There are also questions of Social Equity. Too often improper disposal disproportionately affects disadvantaged citizens. Landfills are built where land is cheap, usually in places where people don’t have a lot of political power or capital. Their needs and welfare are not as carefully considered as those with large financial interests as stake.


For this system, Australia spends $8.6 Billion per year, (wasting $3 billion worth of material). ABS (2009). At 22 million people, this adds up to $390 per person. This is measured as the total income of Australian waste management companies. The costs of toxins entering the food chain or gaseous emissions disrupting the climate systems are of course much harder to quantify. Since we can assume them to be greater than zero, we can proceed with our analysis to see if the benefits outweigh the direct costs independently.

Another less tangible cost of the system is that it is removed from society. No one thinks about where their rubbish goes, because no one knows where their rubbish goes. It goes in the bin, and that’s about it. It is very much an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation. There is no cohesive picture, and because they only experience it on a micro scale, no one really comprehends the macro effect they cumulatively have. There is a disconnect from the process.


Costs are lowest when waste is properly separated at the point of disposal. By keeping the streams apart at the beginning, recovery rates can be as high as 95–100%. And a three bin “traffic light” model is the simplest system that cam achieve these rates. Green bin for organics, Yellow bin for comingled recycling, and Red bin for Landfill. At every waste point those three are always there. Not one bin, not two bins, not four bins. Three bins. San Francisco introduced this system in 2009, and quickly saw diversion rates rocket to 77%. They have affectionately dubbed them ‘The Fantastic Three”. Eberlin (2012)

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We have seen that the reason this isn’t happening presently is that there is no central organisiation, so the public are confused, and private companies have no real incentive to improve their resource recovery. The industry has been built around disposal, and the public perception corresponds to this. Rather than try to fix this with band-aid solutions through subsidies, it would be more effective to address the root of the problem, which is a disjointed system caused by inefficient allocation of contracts.

The network needs to be organized to ensure that contracts are allocated in the most efficient way, and that something isn’t ‘not being done’ just because someone isn’t willing to go to the effort to make money from it. Standards and rules will also be much easier to monitor and enforce when centrally directed. Thus those contracts, rather than being negotiated separately by each local council, should be negotiated by a body that has a scope broad enough to operate on the scale needed — the Federal Government. Rather than take over the companies themselves, the Government can work with them to coordinate a plan that is focused on optimal recovery rates. And off the back of this infrastructure, they are able to step in to fill whatever gaps are left by the previous model.

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This will be supplemented by a single, simple, nationwide education campaign, doing the marketing work of a thousand councils in a single blow.

In theory, this should be able to divert all recoverable materials. All it takes is for people to put their trash in the right place to begin with, then it gets picked up and processed by the appropriate facility. In reality of course, contamination occurs, and all the streams need to be processed.

Now we will look at what these streams will process and recover, and their potential value.


The single recycling stream, containing plastic, paper, glass, steel and aluminum, is processed and separated using a combination of gravity, magnets, eddy current rings, and people in a Material Recovery Facility (MRF).

This can be done either at large scale facilities, capable of handling 500,000 tonnes per year, or small scale portable units, capable of handling a few tonnes a day. Values for these materials were taken from the ‘Lets Recycle’ website.

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We send around 3 million tonnes of paper to landfill each year. At ~$100 per tonne, this is $300 million worth of raw material. But it also represents ~4 billion kWh of energy, 500 thousand litres of oil, and 3 million litres of water needed to make that much new paper from scratch.

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Australia sends ~500,000 tonnes of plastic to landfill each year. At ~ $500 per tonne, this is $250 million worth of raw material.


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Glass isn’t worth as much as other materials, and we aren’t running out of sand as quickly as we’re running out of oil, but we still throw away an estimated $65 million worth each year. Using that for new glass instead would only use 30% of the energy to make it from scratch.


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This includes materials such as cotton and rubber, various fibres and resins, leather, etc. Since they don’t go into the co-mingled recycling stream, they end up in the Landfill. Ideally they should be taken to charity shops, and the hope is that once consumers become more aware of the volume of their landfill, they will be more inclined to take such steps to avoid it. Although it’s only about 3% of our waste, recovery rates are quite low, and it adds up to over $2 million worth of material (Calculated as the value of the raw material — the value of the clothing products themselves would be much higher.)


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Come in two main categories: Ferrous, such as Steel and Iron, and Non-Ferrous, such as copper, brass, aluminum and zinc. Ferrous metals fetch $100 — $200 per tonne, while Non Ferrous metals can be worth $900 (for aluminum) — $4,000 (for dry bright wire). Both are also very resource intensive to make from virgin materials.


The 3 bin system as the basic unit doesn’t mean that other streams can’t be kept pure above and beyond that. Paper recycling at university and office buildings, for example, if kept clean, can save a lot in separation costs down the line. Similarly bars and restaurants can keep glass in a seperate stream, or food scraps in a high quality wet organic stream. These then get to bypass the MRF and head straight to the recycling facility.


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The Green/Organic stream goes to In Vessel Composting facility (right). These are fairly low-tech, enclosed concrete tunnels, which through simple aeration and turning can turn 10 tonnes of material into about 1.5 tonnes of compost/fertilizer.

Smaller systems can be set up to process on site wherever possible, further minimising transport miles.

Australia produces ~7 million tonnes of organic waste per year. 40% of a household’s landfill stream is food scraps. Restaurants and food courts go through staggering amounts every day. And with very few notable exceptions, send it all to rot in a landfill. Meanwhile we make new fertilizers form synthetic chemicals, producing substantial amounts of NO2 and depleting the planet’s reserves of phosphorous. Capturing this stream could be worth $400–500 million dollars.


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Electronic items such as phones, televisions and computers, are suffering from shorter and shorter lifespans. This is due to aggressive marketing campaigns, and in-built obsolescence. The cost of repair is high relative to the purchase cost, and the value of old phones is minimal resulting in a very small second hand market.

Despite the low residual value of redundant phones, consumers still feel that they are worth something. As such, an estimated 1,850 tonnes of phones are hidden around Australia, a number which grows by around a thousand tonnes per year. A similar story applies to other electronics.

The chart below documents how much valuable material is contained in this ‘waste’. While quantifying it exacty is difficult, estimates range from $1 — $5 billion.

At the manufacturing end of line, the mining of the materials is threatening the habitats of many endangered species, such as Mountain Gorillas. As awareness of this has grown, some programs have sprung up to plug the gap, such as the Fauna & Flora program at UNSW, pictured below. But as admirable as they are, much is still wasted. It is not enough to rely on the efforts of individual groups.


Even with the most successful diversion results, landfill waste is still going to be generated. Yet as we have seen, even the gasses released from its decomposition can be usefully captured. The main barrier to this is volume — a site needs to process tens of thousands of tonnes of waste per year to make gas collection viable, and only about 50% of Australia’s waste goes through facilities of that size. With proper nationally directed coordination, however, waste could be channeled towards the sites with gas capture technology, and new facilities could be built where they were needed to complete the network.

This gas can either then be sold on to industro-chemical companies for manufacturing purposes, or combusted to make over 1 billion kWh of electricity, worth $250 million. At the very end, a fine ‘ash’ is produced, roughly 10% of the original weight. This can then be used by the construction sector (for roads and additives), resulting in what could genuinely be a zero waste society.


Part of the beauty of this system is that rather than building new utilities, it makes use of existing infrastructure, improving the result by simply organising it better. Most people already have at least 3 bins, there are enough garbage trucks to handle the volume, and most of the technology is already in place.

Of course some new facilities will still need to be built. These typically cost between $5-$10 million. The best MRF in the UK, the UPM Shotten facility cost about $20 million in 2011. It created 160 jobs, and processes about 270,000 tonnes per year. MRF feasibility study (2009).

If we allocated 2 per capital city, and another 2 for states’ regional areas, at $10 million per plant, that’s $320 million, not even taking into account the economies of scale for such a big contract. Rail networks could be coordinated in the remote outback to make transport of material worthwhile. Operation and maintenance (O&M) costs fall significantly as throughput increases, and typically range from $40–60 per ton for MRFs processing more than 100 tons per day. If they process the extra 10 million tonnes we hope they will, this will cost around $400 million.

If these facilities achieved the 80% recover rate we aim for, that amounts to around $1.8 billion worth of material, 5 times more than the costs, in the first year alone.

Gas capture is more technical and thus more expensive, but is also similarly more valuable.

This is of course an oversimplification, but we can see that the numbers are large enough to allow for any margin of error we account for.


It is clear from the numbers that resource recovery is financially viable. The reason it isn’t being done now isn’t to do with its cost effectiveness, it’s because of the way the system is organised. The public’s disjointed perspective of the subject results in completely contaminated waste streams, since with no clear central structure, people will take the path of least effort. The infrastructure needs to be there to make it easy for people.

In some cases, such as Sweden, Denmark, and Belgium, people do actually make an effort to take their recycling to central places for collection. And, somewhat surprisingly, they have some of the best recovery rates in the world. However it would be advisable to work with existing collection models at least in the beginning.

The fact is that it is not always enough to rely on the free market to provide the services that society needs. The contract allocation, price structure, and industry history have failed to align to produce an environment favourable to collective efficiency. A properly organised program is needed.

Furthermore, the world is going to be looking to develop these strategies in the coming years. And Australia has a chance to position itself as a global leader of national strategy.

Thus to centrally manage the Waste Management program of Australia, or any country for that matter, would be eminently worthwhile.

Just trying to figure it out

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