Is it time to reconsider waste disposal methods?

By Claire Smith, Emma Whitney and Jessica Lighton
30 May 2019
Perhaps it's time NSW considered some of these options and the steps necessary to facilitate these alternative disposal methods to address the burgeoning waste crisis.

Recently, the Queensland Government introduced a new levy for the dumping of waste in Queensland landfills. In addition, China introduced the China Sword Policy to restrict the import of 24 types of solid waste into China. Both of these actions have the potential to negatively impact the disposal of waste in NSW, with some critics saying that we are currently undergoing a waste management crisis.

So is there really a "crisis"? And what are the potential alternative methods for waste disposal and/or management in NSW and beyond?

What is waste?

Waste is defined under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 (POEO Act) to include "any substance (whether solid, liquid or gaseous) that is discharged, emitted or deposited in the environment in such volume, constituency or manner as to cause an alteration in the environment."

It then classifies waste as:

  • special waste
  • liquid waste
  • hazardous waste
  • restricted solid waste
  • general solid waste (putrescible); and
  • general solid waste (non-putrescible).

Putrescible waste is solid waste that contains organic matter, including household waste (which contains organics), waste from litter bins collected by Councils, manure, night soil, animal waste, and disposable nappies. Putrescible waste is derived mainly from residential and business sources.

Non-putrescible general solid waste includes glass, rubber, plastic, plasterboard, ceramics, bricks, concrete or metal, paper and cardboard, garden waste, building and demolition waste, virgin excavated natural material and wood waste. Non-putrescible solid waste is generally derived from businesses, including construction/demolition sites.

Australia's growing waste mountain – and where it goes

Waste generation is closely linked to population, household income and economic activity.

Over the last decade Australia has significantly increased its waste generation from 57 million tonnes to 64 million tonnes, which is equivalent to 2.6 tonnes of waste per capita. Australia's population is currently increasing by 1.6% per year (with Sydney's population increasing at 4.5% per year), which is likely to result in a corresponding increase in waste production each year. Currently, Australia generates 67 million tonnes of waste each year according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

In 2016-17, Australia exported recyclable material to over 100 countries including Vietnam, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Bangladesh. In total, Australia exported 4.23 mega tonnes of recyclable material. The three main types of material exported were metals, paper and cardboard, and plastics.

We are, however, facing restrictions on the export of our waste. From January 2018, China implemented the China Sword Policy to restrict the importation of 24 types of solid waste into China, including various plastics and unsorted mixed papers, and the setting of more stringent standards for Contamination Levels. The China Sword Policy effectively restricts 99% of the 1.27 mega tonnes of waste which was exported to China in 2016-17.

Domestically, as of 1 July 2019, the Queensland Government's waste levy will commence. The levy will apply to waste generated or disposed of in 39 local council areas across Queensland , nominated as part of the waste levy zone, and will be charged on waste produced in a non-levy zone if disposed of in the levy zone (which will include waste transported from other states). Previously, the reduced levies in Queensland provided a financial incentive for NSW to transport its waste to Queensland for disposal; the new levy will have a significant impact on the disposal of NSW waste.

Currently, NSW has three operating landfill sites: Lucas Heights, Eastern Creek and Woodlawn. However, Woodlawn is predicted to close in 2030 and Lucas Heights is scheduled to close in 2038. There are currently no new landfill sites planned for NSW.

All of this raises the important and now increasingly critical question – how will Australia, particularly NSW, dispose of its waste now and into the future?

What is NSW currently doing to reduce and manage waste?

Section 88 of the POEO Act requires certain licensed waste facilities to pay a contribution for each tonne of waste received (known as a waste levy) which is paid to the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA). In 2016-2017, the NSW EPA reported collection of more than $630 million in waste levy payments.

In 2014, the NSW Government introduced the Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy 2014-2021 outlining its strategy for reducing waste generation, improving resources recovery rates and facilitating the "circular economy" (keeping materials circulating within the economy to reduce overall usage). This Strategy is supplemented by the "Waste Less Recycle More" campaign, funded by the waste levy in an attempt to improve waste and recycling habits in NSW. The campaign provides funding for business recycling, organics collections, market development, and the establishment of new waste infrastructure. It is estimated that at October 2016 the program had spent approximately $292.3 million on 822 projects which are predicted to collectively process 2.2 million tonnes of waste. However, a number of local government authorities have questioned the effectiveness of the funding to properly deal with our waste management needs.

On 6 April 2017, an Inquiry was established by the NSW Government to inquire into and report on matters relating to the waste disposal industry, including the sustainability of the current waste and landfill regime in NSW. The outcome of the inquiry saw the NSW Government make 36 recommendations, including:

  • NSW EPA to develop and implement resource recovery criteria for landfills in NSW;
  • NSW EPA to provide additional support to local councils and resource recovery organisations to meet recycling targets and manage issues such as stream contamination, bureaucratic barriers, lack of product stewardship and limited mark opportunities;
  • NSW Government to investigate opportunities to enhance the collaborative powers of the Regional Organisation of Councils to encourage investment in waste facilities, to be funded by the waste levy; and
  • that the NSW Government hypothecate 100% of the waste levy funds contributed by local councils back to these organisations to support waste management services, including waste reduction, avoidance and re-use programs, and environmental programs as well as encourage the development of innovative waste management technology.

Should we be considering alternative waste disposal methods?

Arguably, NSW has insufficient waste infrastructure to meet its demands and this infrastructure shortfall needs to be dealt with immediately. A growing number of alternative waste treatment technologies are being employed (particularly overseas) to tackle the ever increasing waste issue, including:

Anaerobic Digestion

Microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. It is often employed as a source of renewable energy. The process produces biogas consisting of methane, carbon dioxide and other contaminant gases which can be used as a fuel. The process has received increased attention in the UK, Germany and Denmark.


Is the process by which biodegradable waste is rapidly heated through initial stages of composting to remove moisture from the waste stream and therefore reduce the weight of the waste, reducing overall disposal costs. The downside to this process is that the dried waste still needs to breakdown and will therefore contribute to the production of landfill gas which can potentially contribute to climate change.


A process which converts organic or fossil fuel-based materials into CO, H and CO². It involves reacting the waste with oxygen and steam at high temperatures to produce synthetic gas which can then be used as a fuel. The advantage of this process is that it is more efficient than direct combustion. In addition, the process removes ash elements which allows for clean gas production.

Land farming

Is a waste treatment process performed in the upper soil zone or bio-treatment cells. Generally, this process has been used for the management of drill cutting, oily sludge and other petroleum refinery waste. Downsides to this process include:

  • large space requirements;
  • inorganic compounds are not biodegraded; and
  • metal ions which may be toxic and leach from the contaminated soil into the ground.

Mechanical heat treatment

Otherwise known as autoclaving, it involves a mechanical sorting or pre-processing stage followed by thermal treatment. The system can be configured to achieve various waste output objectives such as producing a refuse-based fuel, separating organic components for subsequent biological processing, and extracting materials for recycling. It is similar to mechanical biological treatment but does not include biological degradation. Large-scale autoclave facilities dedicated to treating household waste have received considerable attention in the UK, Spain and the US.


A process where carbon rich material is thermally degraded at temperatures between 350 and 800 degrees Celsius to produce a hydrocarbon rich gas mixture and an inert residue of carbon, ash and heavy metals. If allowed to cool, the gas mixture forms a hydrocarbon rich liquid which can be used as a synthetic fuel oil with further processing. Pyrolysis occurs in the absence of oxygen, resulting lower levels of energy and greenhouse gases being produced compared to other thermal waste treatments such as incineration. However, the process can be expensive to establish, waste must be shredded before being heated, and the resulting product requires further treatment to remove toxins and carcinogenic compounds.

Tunnel composting

An accelerated composting technology that uses forced aeration to process household, green and organic waste into compost. The enclosed environment enables control over the atmosphere and moisture levels, improving decomposition and odour control. Household waste is pre-treated to reduce particle size and then combined with green and organic waste. Steel is removed magnetically and the material is loaded into a tunnel, sealed and composted for approximately two weeks. Additional sorting to remove contaminants and further composting may occur depending on the size of waste particles. The process produces saleable compost and is inexpensive.

Mechanical biological treatment

This inexpensive process employs anaerobic microbial digestion in a controlled environment to treat solid organic waste. Pre-treatment is required to remove non-organic materials which may inhibit the anaerobic process. The microbial digestion takes approximately 5-20 days and produces biogas and digestate sludge. The biogas, usually methane and carbon dioxide, can be utilised for energy production and the sludge used as a landfill cover or for agricultural purposes.

Perhaps it's time NSW considered some of these options and the steps necessary to facilitate these alternative disposal methods to address the burgeoning waste crisis.

If you require any advice on alterative waste treatment methods, including planning approval for alternative infrastructure facilities please contact Claire Smith or Emma Whitney.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.