Summary

Female and Male landholders infographic icon

Per person waste generation

9%

increase since 2015–16 to 2.65 tonnes per year

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Total waste generation

17%

increase since 2015–16 to 21.9 million tonnes per year

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Recycling

64%

of waste diverted for recycling in 2019–20

Person disposing of waste in bin infographic icon

Litter volume

43%

decrease against the 2013–14 benchmark

Since 2015–16, the total amount of waste recycled and disposed of has increased. The amount recycled has increased at a higher rate than waste disposed of. Construction and demolition (C&D) waste accounts for the most waste disposed and recycled. Between 2013–14 and 2019–20, the volume of litter in NSW decreased by 43%.

Why waste and recycling is important

Waste and littering can have widespread and damaging effects on the environment and human health. As consumption grows, so does the amount of waste that needs to be effectively managed. Waste can vary in scale and type, from littered cigarette butts and single-use plastics to discarded food and garden organics, illegal dumping of unwanted household items, construction and demolition waste and hazardous waste materials, including asbestos and chemical contaminants.

Recycling and reuse of discarded items and materials is an effective way of managing some of this waste (if waste streams are non-hazardous) and also contributes to a circular economy. Community awareness of recycling options has steadily increased over the last few years as more and more waste is successfully diverted from landfill.

NSW indicators

 Indicator and status Environmental 
trend
Information 
reliability
Total waste generation
Moderate status meter

Getting worse

✔✔✔
Per person waste generation
Moderate status meter

Getting worse

✔✔✔
Total and per person solid waste disposal
Good status meter

Getting worse

✔✔✔
Total and per person solid waste recycled
Good status meter

Getting better  

✔✔✔
Litter items per 1,000 m2
Good status meter

Getting better  

✔✔✔

Notes:

Terms and symbols used above are defined in About this report .

In 2019–20, the proportion of waste diverted for recycling was 64%, an increase of one percent over five years. The construction and demolition (C&D) waste stream accounted for the largest proportion of both waste generated and waste recycled in 2019–20: 12.5 million tonnes of C&D waste were generated, of which 9.6 million tonnes were recycled. The volume of C&D waste has fallen by 9.5% since 2018–19.

The volume of litter in NSW decreased by 43% in six years and the number of littered items decreased by 19%. The largest category of littered items in volume were drink bottles and cans at 35% of the total in 2020. However, since the start of Return and Earn scheme in 2017, the volume of litter from these eligible containers has decreased by 52%.

In 2019–20, household waste was the most common type of illegally dumped material at 62% of all incidents recorded in EPA’s Report Illegal Dumping online system. Since 2016–17, the total number of recorded illegal dumping incidents increased by 15% from 16,802 to 19,355 reports. However, the number of incidents involving illegal dumping of asbestos has been decreasing since 2016–17.

An estimated 2 million tonnes of hazardous waste was generated in NSW in 2019–20. Asbestos and contaminated soils accounted for 72% of this. Approximately 3% of hazardous waste was exported interstate from NSW in 2019–20. This included zinc compounds moved to SA for recovery, oil to Queensland for recycling, and a range of other waste types to mainly Queensland and Victoria for destruction, disposal, recovery, recycling and reuse. Reasons for interstate export included economics, waste infrastructure gaps and proximity to suitable waste facilities outside NSW.

Spotlight figure 7: Total waste disposed of and recycled and waste generated per capita 2002–03 to 2018–19

Source:
EPA Waste and Resource Reporting Portal (WARRP) data 2021

Spotlight figure 7 shows that between 2016 and 2020, total waste disposed of in NSW steadily increased, while the total tonnes recycled grew at a much higher rate. The total waste disposed of increased from 6.9 million tonnes in 2015–16 to 7.8 million tonnes in 2019–20. In the same period, the total waste recycled increased from 11.8 million tonnes to 14.1 million tonnes. Since 2015, the overall recycling rate remained relatively unchanged.

The volume of litter in NSW decreased by 43% in the six years to 2019–20, while the number of littered items also fell by 19%. Drink bottles and cans remained the largest category of littered items by volume at 35% of the total in 2020. However, the trend has been down since the start of the Return and Earn container deposit scheme in 2017. As at September 2021, over 6.1 billion containers had been returned through the scheme’s network and over 2 billion returned from kerbside recycling, resulting in a 52% reduction in drink container litter.

In 2019–20, household waste was the most common type of illegally dumped material at 62% of all incidents reported to the EPA’s Illegal Dumping Online system. Since 2016–17, the total number of recorded illegal dumping incidents increased by 15% to 19,355 reports. However, the number of incidents involving illegal dumping of asbestos has decreased since 2016–17.

An estimated 2 million tonnes of hazardous waste were generated in NSW in 2019–20. Asbestos and contaminated soils accounted for 72% of this. Approximately 3% of hazardous waste was exported interstate from NSW in 2019–20. Reasons for interstate export included cost efficiency, waste infrastructure gaps and proximity to suitable waste facilities outside NSW.

Pressures

Over the next 20 years, the volume of waste generated in NSW annually is expected to grow from 21 million tonnes in 2021 to nearly 34 million tonnes by 2041. This is due to the continued increase in population and economic growth. Managing high volumes of waste each year is challenging and over time will require more efficient and suitable infrastructure boosted by advances in technology. Facilities for the storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous waste, landfill and liquid waste are approaching capacity.

NSW has also joined an agreement to ban the export of unprocessed plastic, paper, glass and tyres in a bid to move towards a circular economy, increasing the need for adequate infrastructure and processing on shore.

Responses

The NSW Government is committed to the state becoming a circular economy and fulfilling the targets and actions set by the National Waste Policy.

The NSW Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041 sets out a 20-year vision for reducing waste and changing how the NSW economy produces, consumes and recycles products and materials. The vision and actions in the NSW Plastics Action Plan are a key component of this and address each step of the plastics life cycle.

After achieving the Premier’s Priority Target to reduce litter by 40% by 2020, a new state target to cut litter items by 60% by 2030 has been announced. NSW will also be using new, more robust measurement tools for tracking terrestrial and marine litter. Anti-littering campaigns such as Don’t be a Tosser! and new programs for reducing cigarette butt and marine litter will focus on changing public attitudes and behaviour. The Return and Earn container deposit scheme has resulted in over 556,000 tonnes of materials being recycled since 2017 and a 52% reduction in drink container.

In alignment with Net Zero Plan Stage 1: 2020–2030, the NSW Government has set a goal of net zero emissions from organic waste to landfill by 2030. This includes targets for all NSW food-generating businesses to have a source-separated service for organic waste by 2025 and all households by 2030.

Related topics: Population  | Economic Activity and the Environment

Context

Government education initiatives and frequent media coverage have broadened the community’s knowledge about how waste is managed and heightened its interest in recycling and re-using waste. Issues of particular interest include reducing single-use plastics, excessive packaging, e-waste and food waste ( IPSOS 2016 ).

Public recognition of the impacts that waste and littering can have on the community, the environment and the economy has increased. Poorly run waste management facilities can cause leachate, dust, offensive odours and noise. Littering and illegal dumping reduce the amenity of public spaces, harm plants and animals and are expensive for councils, state government and private landholders to clean up.

Poor waste disposal, especially of hazardous wastes, can result in harmful chemicals leaching into the soil, groundwater and surface water and becoming a risk to human health and the environment. Poor waste management practices may result in a loss of valuable resources from the productive economy.

The waste generation, recycling and disposal data provided in this report is based on the monthly and annual reports filed by landfill and resource recovery facility operators in NSW as required by the Protection of the Environment Operations Regulation 2014.

In 2015, the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) developed a more rigorous method of measuring recycling performance and waste generation which established best practice benchmarks and generated more accurate waste data. Voluntary surveys to estimate waste generation and recycling performance were replaced by the introduction of mandatory online reporting by most resource recovery facilities through the Waste and Resource Reporting Portal (WARRP).

This improved method means that waste data collected since 2015–16 cannot be directly compared to earlier waste data. To illustrate the overall trends in waste and recycling, this report shows data leading up to 2015–16 in grey shading. Discussion of waste status and trends focuses on the 2015–2020 period.

Data quality

The dataset is a reliable and valid estimation of recycling, waste disposal and diversion and waste generation activity in NSW. The following measures and controls are in place to ensure the quality of the dataset:

  • WARRP data is audited by the EPA which reconciles facility reports against the weighbridge records. Facilities are selected for audit through periodic risk assessments.
  • The NSW waste regulatory framework actively supports the collection of reliable waste data by mandating reporting requirements, limiting stockpiles to ensure the material is moved through the waste system productively and requiring the use of weighbridges to accurately measure waste flows for all levy-liable facilities.
  • It is an offence for facilities to provide false and misleading information under section 66 (2) of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997.
  • The dataset calculations are subject to an extensive internal quality review.
  • The method and assumptions applied to the dataset have been independently and objectively peer-reviewed by external consultants.

Between 2015 and 2020, total waste generated in NSW rose by 17% to 21.9 million tonnes. In the same period, the amount of waste disposed in NSW steadily increased, while the recycled total grew at a much higher rate. Total waste disposed increased from 6.9 million tonnes in 2015–16 to 7.8 million tonnes in 2019–20 (see Figure 7.1). Over the same period, total waste recycled grew from 11.8 million tonnes to 14.1 million tonnes.

Figure 7.1: Total waste disposed of and recycled by waste stream and per capita for NSW 2002–03 to 2019–20

Source:
EPA Waste and Resource Reporting Portal (WARRP) data 2021

In 2019–20, the overall recycling rate (total waste recycled divided by total waste generated) was 64%, representing 14 million tonnes diverted from landfill. Overall recycling has remained relatively unchanged since 2015.

In 2019–20, 86% of NSW households received a council kerbside recycling service. The number of households served may differ from year to year due to the involvement of private contractor services, especially for multi-unit dwellings, making it difficult for councils to provide accurate data.

In 2019–20, the total kerbside organics collected was 621,616 tonnes, an increase of almost 12,000 tonnes from the year before. This consisted of 405,717 tonnes of garden organics and 215,899 tonnes of food and garden organics. Organics were also sourced from drop-off (125,873 tonnes) and clean-up collections (17,695 tonnes).

In 2019–20, the total organics collected was 813,389 tonnes, including 48,205 tonnes collected other council organics (parks, gardens, gutters, etc.), an increase of 4.4% from 2018–19.

The NSW Government collects data and implements programs for three waste streams:

  • municipal solid waste (MSW) – waste generated by households and local government operations which mostly consists of paper/cardboard, plastics, glass, food and garden waste
  • commercial and industrial (C&I) waste – waste generated by businesses, industries and institutions that contains a great deal of metals, plastics, food, paper/cardboard and wood
  • construction and demolition (C&D) waste – waste generated by construction and demolition activities, which consists of wood, bricks, concrete and soil.

Between 2015 and 2020, total waste generated per capita rose by 9% 2.43 tonnes to 2.65 tonnes. This was primarily due to increased construction activity (1.32 tonnes to 1.52 tonnes per capita), with MSW and C&I waste generation per capita remaining relatively unchanged during this period (see Figure 7.1). Of note is the decline in waste generation per capita from the previous year, with C&D dropping most significantly from 1.65 tonnes per capita in 2018–19 to 1.52 tonnes per capita in 2019–20. This was largely attributable to a drop in contaminated soils and asbestos-containing materials being disposed to landfill. Over the same period, there was a small increase in C&I waste per capita from 0.55 to 0.58 tonnes.

Under the NSW Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy 2014–2021 ( EPA 2014 ), targets were set to increase recycling rates by 2022 to:

  • 70% for municipal solid waste (MSW)
  • 70% for commercial and industrial waste (C&I)
  • 80% for construction and demolition waste (C&D).

Progress towards the targets is shown in Table 7.1. The overall waste recycling rate for NSW during 2019–20 was 64%, driven largely by a strong recycling rate achieved in the construction industry.

Between 2015 and 2020, recycling rates improved slightly for C&I waste from 47% to 52% while C&D recycling has remained consistently strong at between 76% and 81%. MSW stayed relatively unchanged, increasing by only a percentage point over the same period.

In 2014, NSW set a target of diverting from landfill 75% of all waste by 2020-21. However, as of 2018-19 (the most current published statistics), we are falling short of the target, reaching only 65%. Construction and demolition recycling has performed the best at a rate close to 80%, followed by commercial and industrial recycling at 53%. Municipal solid waste (mostly household waste) has plateaued at just over 40% for the last four years. This strategy provides an opportunity to refocus our efforts and consider developments since 2014 ( DPIE 2021b )

Table 7.1: Progress towards NSW recycling targets by waste stream, 2015–16 to 2019–20

Waste Stream 2015-16 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 Goal FY 2022
MSW 42% 42% 42% 43% 43% 70%
C&I 47% 49% 53% 53% 52% 70%
C&D 78% 81% 77% 77% 76% 80%
Total 63% 65% 65% 65% 64% N/A
Source:
EPA data 2020

The NSW Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041 ( DPIE 2021b ) sets new targets by 2030 to:

  • reduce total waste generated by 10% per person
  • achieve an 80% average recovery rate from all waste streams.

In 2019, NSW agreed to a set of targets as part of the National Waste Policy Action Plan. In this strategy, we commit to adopting these targets as the NSW targets ( DPIE 2021b ).

Between 2013–14 and 2019–20, the volume of litter in NSW decreased by 43%, exceeding the 40% litter reduction target by 2020 in the NSW Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy 2014–2021 (see Figure 7.2). Over the same period, the number of littered items also decreased by % (Figure 7.3).

Figure 7.2: National and NSW average for litter volume (excluding illegal dumping), 2006–07 to 2019–20

Source:
Keep Australia Beautiful National Litter Index data for NSW provided to EPA 2020

Figure 7.3: National and NSW average for litter items (excluding illegal dumping), 2005–06 to 2019–20

Source:
EPA data 2020

The use of the National Litter Index in litter counts across Australia has been discontinued in NSW and other jurisdictions, excluding South Australia. From 2020–21, the primary litter data measure used in NSW at a mass scale is the Key Littered Items Study, which will use a new terrestrial litter measure, the Australian Litter Measure, beginning in 2022 (for more information see Responses).

Litter composition in NSW

Figure 7.4 shows that drink containers eligible for the Return and Earn scheme were the largest category of litter by volume with 35% of the total in 2019–20. The next largest category was takeaway food containers (32%), which includes hamburger wrappers, hot chip packets, plastic food containers, pizza boxes, coffee cups and milkshake containers.

Figure 7.4: Composition of the NSW litter stream by volume, 2019–20

Notes:

R&E = Return and Earn

Source:
Keep Australia Beautiful National Litter Index data for NSW provided to EPA 2020

Figure 7.5 shows the number of miscellaneous littered items topped the total in 2019–20 at 44%) including clothing, pieces of rubber, ice cream sticks and unidentified litter. This was followed by cigarette litter with 34% of the total.

Figure 7.5: Composition of NSW litter stream items 2019–20

Notes:

R&E = Return & Earn

Source:
Keep Australia Beautiful National Litter Index data for NSW provided to EPA 2020

The NSW container deposit scheme, Return and Earn, was introduced in December 2017. The scheme provides a 10-cent refund for eligible drink containers, which in 2019–20 made up 35% of the total volume of litter generated in NSW (Figure 7.4) and 5% of all littered items (Figure 7.5). From 2016–17, just before the introduction of the program, to 2019–20, the volume of litter from R&E-type containers decreased by 52%.

By 2020–21, Return and Earn were over 620 network operator collection points across NSW and 75% of adults in NSW had participated in the scheme. As a result, 5.7 billion containers have been collected since 2017, including 1.9 billion containers from kerbside recycling (Figure 7.6). This has resulted in over 556,292 tonnes of materials recycled and a 52% reduction in drink container litter. The scheme redemption rate continues to rise year on year.

Figure 7.6: NSW container deposit scheme (Return and Earn) recovery rate from December 2017 to March 2021

Source:
EPA data 2021

Data shows that industrial locations continue to be the most littered type of site in NSW for both volume and number of items (Figure 7.7). Highways and car parks are the next most littered areas, with residential and retail sites having moderate amounts of litter. Beaches, recreational parks and shopping centres are the state’s least littered sites in terms of volume and amount, possibly due to them being regularly cleaned, rather than any difference in littering behaviour.

Figure 7.7: NSW litter volume by site type, 2013–14 to 2019–20

Source:
EPA data 2020

Household waste remains the most common type of illegally dumped material in NSW, comprising 62% of all illegal dumping incidents reported to the EPA’s RIDonline in 2019–20 (Figure 7.8). Illegal dumping rates of household items have trended upwards over the past few years (Figure 7.9). Other key trends include:

  • Construction and demolition (C&D) waste accounted for 8% of all illegal dumping incidents recorded by RIDonline in 2019– Illegal dumping of C&D waste has been trending upwards over the past few years.
  • Green waste and mulch comprised 5% of all illegal dumping incidents reported to RIDonline in 2019–20 with a recent increase in dumping rates compared to 2018–19.
  • Tyres accounted for 3% of all illegal dumping incidents in 2019–20, with illegal dumping rates trending downwards over the past few years.

Illegal dumping of asbestos-contaminated material accounted for 2% of incidents reported continuing a downward trend in recent years.

Figure 7.8: Composition of illegally dumped waste 2019–20

Source:
RIDonline data 2020

Figure 7.9: Illegal dumping incidents recorded by RIDonline by waste type, 2016–17 to 2019–20

Hazardous waste requires specialised handling, treatment, storage and disposal to effectively reduce the risk it poses to the environment and human health. In NSW, the management of hazardous waste is regulated under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 and the Protection of the Environment Operations (Waste) Regulation 2014.

In 2019–20, estimated NSW hazardous waste ‘arisings’ – defined as the delivery of waste to processing, storage, treatment or disposal facilities – was 2,400,051 tonnes. About 72% of this was asbestos waste and contaminated soil. Table 7.2 shows the five waste types arising in the greatest volumes in NSW in that year. Based on 2019–20 data, roughly 3% of hazardous waste flows in NSW are exported interstate, predominantly to Queensland, Victoria and South Australia.

Table 7.2: Hazardous waste type arisings in highest volumes in NSW, 2019–20

Waste Type Estimated arisings (tonnes)
Asbestos (including asbestos-contaminated soil) 89,534
Contaminated soils 838,866
Tyres 136,638
Lead and lead compounds 100,000
Grease trap wastes 86,850

Notes:

The estimated hazardous waste arisings are derived from tracking data or estimated using alternative data, adjustments and assumptions. They exclude contaminated biosolids and other waste types that are not required to be tracked and for which there is no alternative data available.

The estimated projections of hazardous waste arisings shown in Figure 7.10 demonstrate that the hazardous waste in NSW is predicted to over the next five years. In addition, with the emergence of new technologies and industrial processes, novel types of hazardous waste are likely to be produced, possibly in significant volumes. Soils and liquids contaminated with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are perhaps the most well-known example of an emergent form of hazardous waste in NSW. Other examples include deca-bromodiphenylether (decaBDE) used in electronics and end-of-life lithium-ion batteries ( DEE 2019 ).

Source:
NSW EPA data reported in Waste and Environment Pty Ltd 2021, hazardous waste infrastructure needs assessment, report commissioned by the NSW EPA (not published)

Figure 7.10: Current and projected hazardous waste arisings in NSW from 2010–11

Source:
NSW EPA data, reported in 2021, Ascend Waste and Environment Pty Ltd, NSW hazardous waste infrastructure needs assessment, report commissioned by the NSW EPA (not published)

Pressures

Growing waste generation and infrastructure constraints

NSW, with its large economy and population, creates around one-third of Australia’s total waste. Over the next 20 years, NSW waste volumes are forecast to grow from 21 million tonnes in 2021 to nearly 37 million tonnes by 2041 ( DPIE 2021b ).

At current rates of generation and recycling, the putrescible landfills, which accept household waste and service Greater Sydney, are likely to reach capacity within the next 15 years. The non-putrescible landfills, which accept inert commercial and construction wastes, will reach capacity in this decade. In some regional areas, like Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie, landfill capacity is also likely to be reached this decade.

There are also looming capacity constraints for the safe storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous waste and liquid waste. This is associated with growing waste quantities, key site closures, ageing infrastructure and treatment processes and the emergence of new waste streams. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic may impose pressures on NSW clinical waste treatment and thermal destruction capacity. The only landfill that can accept contaminated wastes in NSW is expected to be full in 2031.

By 2025, NSW will transition to source-separated collection of food organics from select businesses that generate the highest volumes of food waste, such as large supermarkets and hospitality businesses, followed in 2030 by source-separated collection of food and garden organics from households. This will significantly increase the volume of clean organics entering the recycling system. NSW will need to ensure it has the capacity to reprocess this material.

The NSW Government has also committed to tripling the recycling rate of plastics by 2030. This will require processing infrastructure to support the increased quantity of plastics destined for recycling over the next few years.

Rural and regional communities have specific challenges regarding access to safe disposal options. As trucks need to travel long distances to collect small amounts of waste, some waste services are cost-prohibitive for regional councils. Even worse, some Aboriginal and remote communities have no regular collection services at all.

Problem waste

Problem waste can be hazardous to human health and the environment and is unable to be safely or efficiently handled through the standard waste management system. Problem waste includes unwanted paints, chemicals, treated timber, gas bottles, batteries, tyres and plastic films.

The effective collection, treatment and management of problem waste requires suitable infrastructure, accessible to the community who knows about it. This infrastructure can be provided by local or state government or through product stewardship schemes which involve producers of problem waste being more responsible for managing the environmental impact of their products throughout their life cycle.

Effect of waste on the environment

Waste can have far-reaching impacts on the natural environment. It can kill wildlife if ingested, accumulate other chemical pollutants and negatively impact soils.

Some waste cannot be collected or treated once it has been generated, such as microbeads. These are tiny, often microscopic, pieces of plastic that are added to a range of products, including rinse-off cosmetics and personal care and cleaning products. Once in the water, microbeads can harm the environment and human health due to their composition, ability to attract toxins and transfer up the food chain and harm aquatic animals and fish. Microbeads persist in the environment as they do not readily biodegrade and are almost impossible to remove due to their size. The best way to reduce their impact is to prevent them from entering the environment.

Human behaviour

Consumer behaviour strongly influences the success of waste avoidance and recovery. For example:

  • if people place recyclables in the wrong bin, they can be disposed of to landfill rather than being recycled
  • householders putting plastic bags and other non-recyclable items in the recycling bin can interfere with recycling equipment and contaminate outputs
  • consumers’ preferences or prejudices about recycled products can influence their market demand and value, which may affect the commercial viability of recycling facilities.

Beyond recycling, research has shown that human behaviour can influence the generation of food waste by a lack of meal planning, a tendency to over-cater and incorrect food storage ( EPA 2016b ). Likewise, studies have shown that people are more likely to litter in places where others have already littered or where they think they will not be caught ( EPA 2017 ).

Illegal behaviour

Illegal behaviour, such as littering and unlawful dumping, results in recyclable materials being unnecessarily lost from the economy and causes pollution in public places that is expensive to clean up. A 2016 survey of NSW local councils, public and private land managers and community groups found that more than $180 million was spent each year on managing and cleaning up litter ( EPA 2016a ).

The waste crime problem in NSW can be organised and includes a network of offenders involved at each stage of the waste process.

Illegal dumping is the disposal of any waste that is larger than litter to land or water without the required approvals, such as an environment protection licence or planning approval. It ranges from small-scale illegal dumping, such as household goods which have been illegally dumped on the kerbside, to large-scale dumping involving tonnes of asbestos-contaminated soil. Illegal activity can damage the environment and our health, degrade the amenity of public spaces and create high clean-up costs. Illegal dumping is motivated by:

  • cost savings by avoiding to pay the waste levy and waste disposal charges
  • convenience, where households will place unwanted items on the kerb instead of organising a council bulky waste collection service or taking items to a lawful waste facility
  • an uncaring attitude.

Landowners unknowingly receiving contaminated fill from criminal operators disguised as ‘clean fill’ is another illegal activity in the NSW waste sector. Landowners are often unaware that the material they have received contains asbestos and other contaminants, although some landowners receive money to dispose of waste materials illegally on their properties.

Changes to recycling markets

Internationally, there has been a global shift towards a circular economy, which aims to eliminate waste and keep products and material in use for longer. Circular economy policies in Europe and the United Kingdom have led to a significant shift towards more producer responsibility, resource recovery systems that are set up to preserve and improve the value of materials and strong economic incentives to avoid waste generation.

Since 2018, China and other countries in Asia have refused to import recyclable waste. This is part of a move to protect their environments from the negative impacts of waste. This has forced waste and resource recovery businesses throughout the world, including in NSW, to rethink business models and deal with waste closer to where it is generated.

Additionally, an agreement by the Council of Australian Governments in 2020 to ban the export of unprocessed plastic, paper, glass and tyres signalled that Australia would take greater responsibility for managing and processing the waste it generates. Changes to waste exports are occurring in a phased approach between 2021 and 2024 as follows:

  • from 1 January 2021, only some types of processed glass waste can be exported
  • from 1 July 2021, only plastics that have been sorted into a single resin or polymer type or made into processed engineered fuel can be exported
  • from 1 December 2021, only tyres designated for re-treading or processed into crumbs, buffings, granules and shreds or into a tyre-derived fuel can be exported
  • from 1 July 2022, only plastics that have been sorted into a single resin or polymer type and processed for further use or made into processed engineered fuel can be exported
  • from 1 July 2024, only paper and cardboard that is processed or sorted to specific requirements can be exported.

Joint investments in reprocessing infrastructure by the federal, state and territory governments and industry will help bridge the gap in capacity to take previously exported waste and remanufacture it locally. 

Waste contributions to carbon emissions

Emissions from organic waste decomposing in landfill make up more than 2% of the total net annual emissions of carbon in NSW. In 2019–20, an estimated 2.5 million tonnes of organic waste (including food organics, garden organics, timber and textiles) was sent to landfill ( DPIE 2021b ).

However, emissions from landfill are only a small fraction of the emissions associated with how resources are used. It is estimated that nearly half of global emissions are attributable to the use and management of materials and products ( Ellen Macarthur Foundation 2019 ).

Responses

Legislation and policy

Circular Economy Policy Statement

The NSW Circular Economy Policy Statement: Too Good to Waste ( EPA 2019b ) sets the ambition and approach for transitioning the state to a circular economy. It provides principles to guide NSW Government decision-making on resource use and management.

The policy statement:

  • provides a definition and common language and direction for a circular economy, based around seven circular economy principles
  • defines the NSW Government’s role in implementing the circular economy principles across the state
  • provides clear directions to assist the NSW Government to the embed circular economy in its decision-making, policies, strategies and programs
  • outlines immediate next steps and sets focus areas to guide planning and implementation.

National Waste Policy

Implementation of the 2018 National Waste Policy has continued with NSW collaborating with the Commonwealth and other jurisdictions to develop the National Waste Policy Action Plan. The action plan sets targets and actions to complement and support the implementation of waste management plans by NSW and other jurisdictions as well as business and industry.

Action plan targets include:

  • banning the export of unprocessed plastic, paper, glass and tyre waste
  • phasing out problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2025
  • a reduction in total waste generated in Australia by 10% per person by 2030
  • an 80% average recovery rate from all waste streams by 2030
  • halving the amount of organic waste sent to landfill by 2030
  • a significant increase in the use of recycled content by governments and industry
  • making comprehensive, economy-wide and timely data publicly available to support better consumer, investment and policy decisions.

Actions outlined in the NSW Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041 and the NSW Plastics Action Plan contribute towards meeting these targets.

NSW Plastics Action Plan

The NSW Plastics Action Plan ( DPIE 2021a ) outlines a comprehensive suite of actions to address the waste problem at all stages of the plastic life cycle, including:

  • phasing out single-use and other problematic and unnecessary plastics
  • making producers of plastic packaging more responsible for their packaging
  • accelerating the transition to better plastic products through the $10-million Circular Materials Fund
  • providing funding to support innovative recycling solutions
  • investigating product stewardship for butts
  • providing funding and guidance to help reduce tiny plastic pellets (known as ‘nurdles’) from entering NSW waterways
  • supporting plastics research with $2 million towards a new Plastics Research Partnership.

Under its plan, the NSW Government has committed to banning a number of single-use plastic items. These include lightweight plastic bags, single-use plastic cutlery, straws and stirrers, cotton buds with plastic sticks, expanded polystyrene food service items and plastic microbeads in rinse-off personal care and cosmetic products. These measures are expected to prevent nearly 2.7 billion plastic items entering the environment through litter over the next 20 years.

NSW Net Zero Plan 2020–2030

In 2020, the NSW Government released Net Zero Plan Stage 1: 2020–2030 ( DPIE 2020 ), which sets out how NSW will halve its carbon emissions by 2030 on the way to net zero emissions by 2050. As part of the plan, the NSW Government committed to setting a target of net zero emissions from organic waste to landfill by 2030.

Delivery of this goal will be supported by the commitment under the NSW Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041 for source-separated collection of food organics from select businesses that generate the highest volumes of food waste by 2025, followed by separated collection of food and garden organics from households in 2030. With $69 million in funding support, this Net Zero Organics program will reduce the generation of food waste from households and business, support new collection services, educate communities to recycle organics well and support safe, economically viable markets for the recycled product. The Net Zero Organics program will be supported by other measures such as landfill gas capture and destruction towards the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

Programs

NSW Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041

The NSW Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041: Stage 1 (2021–2027) ( DPIE 2021b ) aims to reduce waste and change how the NSW economy produces, consumes and recycles products and materials. It sets out a vision for transitioning to a circular economy over the next 20 years, with actions to be taken over the next six years aimed at delivering long-term objectives. The strategy includes actions under three focus areas:

  • meeting future infrastructure and service needs as waste volumes continue to grow and stimulating investment for innovation
  • reducing carbon emissions through better waste and materials management as NSW transitions to a circular economy
  • building on work to protect the environment and human health from waste pollution, such as littering, illegal dumping and mishandling of hazardous wastes, by maintaining strong regulations and engaging with businesses and consumers to drive behaviour change.

In September 2021, the NSW Government released the Energy from Waste Infrastructure Plan, which outlines the strategic planning considerations for future energy from waste infrastructure.

Waste Less, Recycle More

The Waste Less, Recycle More 2013–2021 Initiative provided $802.7 million of funding for diverse waste and recycling projects, including business recycling, organics collections, market development, managing problem wastes, new waste infrastructure, research and development, local councils and programs to tackle illegal dumping and litter.

With funding from the NSW waste levy, the initiative was the largest waste and recycling funding program in Australia. At June 2021, key achievements included:

  • 7 million tonnes of additional recycling capacity built or in the works
  • $439.7 million in public and private sector investment in waste and recycling in NSW
  • new or enhanced kerbside collections for food and garden waste in 43 council areas
  • 96 new community recycling services for problem waste supported with an extra 12,000 tonnes of waste collected
  • five regional illegal dumping squads established with programs 70,950 incidents investigated
  • over $30 million provided for regional waste groups to develop and implement 14 regional waste strategies and waste and resource recovery projects
  • 31 Aboriginal communities awarded funding through 29 grants to develop and implement waste management plans under the celebrated Aboriginal Communities Waste Management Program.

Illegal Dumping Strategy 2017–21

The NSW Government takes a combined approach of stakeholder engagement, education, compliance activities and enforcement to combat illegal dumping. In line with this, the NSW Illegal Dumping Strategy 2017–21 ( EPA 2018 ) was released in 2018. The strategy focuses on all forms of illegal dumping and offenders, but especially where problem waste like asbestos, construction and demolition, household, green and used tyres is involved.

The strategy has focuses on improving public awareness, reporting of incidents and data collection and has had success in all three areas. Key achievements since 2018 include:

  • public facing campaigns to raise awareness and change behaviours, with research showing that community attitudes towards illegal dumping have improved in the period 2014–2019
  • a guide to managing and procuring waste services for the construction and demolition industry to try to prevent dumping
  • $1.58 million awarded in December 2020 to 22 new projects that demonstrated innovative approaches to dealing with illegal dumping and driving behaviour change
  • a doubling in reports of dumping incidents to RIDonline, since the service was enabled in 2016.

NSW Asbestos Waste Strategy 2019–21

The NSW Asbestos Waste Strategy 2019–21 ( EPA 2019a ) proposes innovative measures to promote lawful and appropriate disposal of asbestos waste. These measures are the result of social research, ongoing stakeholder feedback, pilot programs and evaluation of existing processes.

The strategy includes multiple actions to improve asbestos waste practices with measures aimed at:

  • increasing the convenience of disposing of bonded asbestos and lowering the cost
  • improving asbestos regulations
  • increasing awareness around asbestos handling and disposal
  • improving the upfront controls on asbestos
  • increasing the chance of getting caught if asbestos is disposed illegally.

The strategy operates in parallel with the NSW Illegal Dumping Strategy 201721 and data is gathered through the RIDonline database to be used as a baseline from which to measure success. Key recent achievements have included:

  • establishment of new practices at recycling facilities which minimise the risk of asbestos in construction and demolition waste entering facilities
  • successful trial and implementation of different ways to cover waste at landfills
  • work with private waste operators to trial innovative asbestos waste management practices that keep asbestos waste out of waste bins.

Litter prevention programs

The Premier’s Priority to reduce litter by 40% by 2020 was achieved and planning is now underway to meet a new state target to reduce litter items by 60% by 2030, as set out in the Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041.

A range of programs are focusing on the revised target as outlined below.

  • A new terrestrial litter study, the Australian Litter Study, has been developed in partnership with Australian states and territories to replace the National Litter Index. This will be joined by the Key Littered Items Study which will be used to track marine debris. Together these new measures will provide a powerful monitoring program to understand how litter moves through the environment and the impact of programs on litter reduction.
  • The Don’t be a Tosser! anti-littering campaign continues to evolve in its mission to transform community attitudes to littering. A new marine litter campaign has also been developed to increase community understanding of the impact of litter on waterways.
  • Litter Prevention Grants target local litter hotspots though better infrastructure, such as more bins, community engagement and enforcement, an average reduction in litter of 70%.
  • A new cigarette butt litter prevention program has been introduced, with a supporting grants program to tackle what is the most littered item in NSW.
  • The Report to EPA littering from vehicle application has been upgraded with over 60,000 registered litter reporters in NSW.

Container deposit scheme

The NSW Government’s container deposit scheme, Return and Earn, is the state’s largest ever litter reduction program. Prior to its commencement in December 2017, drink containers accounted for 44% of the volume of all NSW litter. Return and Earn reduces litter by offering an incentive to hold on to empty containers and return them to a collection point for a refund.

As at September 2021, over 6.1 billion containers had been returned through the Return and Earn network and over 2 billion containers from kerbside recycling. This has resulted in over 595,500 tonnes of materials recycled and a 52% reduction in drink container litter. The scheme redemption rate continues to rise year by year.

people of NSW have embraced the scheme with 88% of NSW residents (18+) in support, 75% having participated and 79% stating they believe Return and Earn is a scheme they can trust in the long run.

Alongside the environmental positives of less litter and more recycling, the scheme has delivered economic and community benefits with more than $570 million in refunds back in the hands of the community. It has also become an important fundraising channel for many not-for-profits with over $22 million raised for charities and community groups via donations and fees from hosting returns points.

Alternative Waste Technology transition package

In October 2018, the EPA revoked the general and specific resource recovery orders and exemptions that allowed for the application of Mixed Waste Organic Outputs (MWOO) to land due to risks associated with chemical and physical contaminants. MWOO is produced at Alternative Waste Treatment (AWT) facilities, primarily to divert general household waste in the red-lid bin from landfill. AWT operators previously sold MWOO as a soil amendment under strict controls.

A Phase 1 Alternative Waste Technology transition package was introduced for the AWT industry to ensure kerbside collection services would not be disrupted and that any additional transport and landfill costs would not be passed on to councils or ratepayers.

Phase 2 of the Alternative Waste Technology transition package was announced in March 2020 with a $24-million funding package to support local councils and the AWT industry to improve kerbside separation of food and garden waste and encourage other, better uses of waste. The investment includes:

  • $12.5 million in Organics Collection grants
  • $5 million for the Local Council Transition Fund to provide sustainable, reliable and affordable kerbside services that maximise recovery from the red-lid bin and recirculation safely back into the productive economy
  • $6.26 million research and development grants for alternative uses of general waste ($2.51 million) and organics infrastructure grants ($3.75).

Waste Crime Taskforce

In 2017, the EPA established a Waste Crime Taskforce to address the most serious and complex waste-related crimes and organised criminal behaviour. The taskforce brings together experienced investigators, waste compliance, legal and intelligence staff and is led by the EPA’s Chief Investigator and the Director of the Major Compliance and Investigations Branch. The taskforce works with NSW Police and other agencies to deter and disrupt waste crime through active and timely intelligence-led investigations and other regulatory interventions.

The Waste Crime Taskforce has commenced 39 prosecutions against several individuals and companies for waste crime offences, including pollution of land and the supply of false or misleading information about waste. One individual has received a custodial sentence while large financial penalties have been ordered against other offenders. NSW Police has also commenced criminal proceedings against several individuals.

Remanufacture NSW

Commencing in January 2021, Remanufacture NSW is offering funding to support the resource recovery sector’s response to the export ban on unprocessed plastic, paper, glass and tyre waste. The program will ensure NSW leads by example by maximising recycling and re-use activities and keeping materials in the productive economy. This program is co-funded by the Commonwealth Government through the Recycling Modernisation Fund and the NSW Government.

Remanufacture NSW offers funding of up to $35 million across two streams:

  • establishment of new recycling infrastructure and equipment
  • innovative trials on re-use of export-banned waste materials.

In August 2021, $24.15 million was awarded to 24 successful grant projects, including:

  • 18 infrastructure projects totalling just over $22 million, including for the innovative use of materials, increasing recycled content and demand for it, reuse and reprocessing and a new materials recovery facility
  • 4 trial projects totalling $2.1 million in plastics, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and pail

The remaining $10.85 million will be made available as Round 2 of Remanufacture NSW before the end of 2021.

National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS)

The NABERS waste tool measures how well a building manages waste generation, recycling and resource recovery and supply chain management. 

Three tiers of service are available for different building types, including the Waste Platform, Waste Verification Report and Waste Rating. These services allow the building sector to track and report on waste management performance against registered industry standards, such as verified recycling, material recovery and overall waste scores.

Future opportunities

National cooperation

NSW participates in a cross-jurisdictional working group on the phase-out of problematic and unnecessary plastics, such as single-use plastics. This group seeks to create alignment where possible on the bans of single-use and other problematic plastics to ensure harmonisation across borders.

NSW is working with the Australian Government and other jurisdictions to build consensus on waste prevention and management. This work aims to promote consistent waste management standards across Australia that will minimise the risk of harm to human health and the environment. This includes developing a robust and coordinated regulatory response to the long-distance transport of waste for disposal as well as implementing actions under the National Waste Policy Action Plan.

NSW has also participated in a review of the National Environment Protection (Used Packaging Materials) Measure 2011 (used packaging NEPM). The review is looking to update the used packaging NEPM to ensure it better meets the goals to improve the management of packaging, including recovery, recycling, use of recycled materials and reducing problematic and unnecessary packaging.

Review of the POEO Waste Regulation

The Protection of the Environment Operations (Waste) Regulation 2014 is the key piece of legislation that sets out the regulatory framework for the management, storage, transportation and reuse of waste in NSW.

The current Regulation is due for staged repeal on 1 September 2022 in accordance with the Subordinate Legislation Act 1989. This will provide an opportunity for the regulatory framework to be reviewed in light of the directions set out in the NSW Government’s Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041, the transition to a circular economy and the objects of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997.

Hazardous waste

The NSW Government is leading the establishment of a nationally consistent tracking and data system. National consistency will improve the quality of data and provide better oversight of hazardous waste movement in NSW and other jurisdictions. The system will contain data on the generation, movement and fate of hazardous wastes to be collected as close to real time as possible and enable cradle-to-grave oversight of priority hazardous wastes. This will greatly increase our capability to detect and address potentially illegal and dangerous stockpiling and support legitimate operators.

The new tracking and data system will also be a critical part of strategic infrastructure planning and will assist in identifying critical hazardous waste infrastructure needs, allowing us to work with industry to encourage more investment to fill those gaps.

In conjunction with the tracking system, NSW will also investigate ways to improve the management of hazardous and problematic wastes and a product stewardship scheme for high-risk hazardous wastes like flammable waste solvents.

NSW Net Zero Plan 2020–2030

In 2020, the NSW Government released the Net Zero Plan Stage 1: 2020–2030 ( DPIE 2020 ) which sets out how NSW will deliver a 50% cut in emissions by 2030 compared to 2005 levels and put NSW on the path to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

By adopting a circular economy approach, we can increase our carbon efficiency by redesigning our waste, using less energy-intensive materials in production, increasing the lifespan of buildings and products and re-using or recycling materials to avoid emissions associated with raw material extraction and production.

The NSW Government will work with the property and infrastructure sectors to develop tools and guidance to promote circular design and practices, including new circular design guidelines for buildings and infrastructure. Opportunities will also be identified to embed circular design principles in new NSW Government buildings, infrastructure and precincts.

References

EPA 2016a, Litter Costs to the NSW Economy: A Preliminary Report, unpublished report