Waste can deplete Victoria’s natural resources, create pollution, increase greenhouse gas emissions, and affect human health. Waste also compounds the risks and effects of climate change. Waste minimisation and recycling of materials are central to the development of a ‘circular economy’, where material that would previously have been classified as ‘waste’ is given a new use.

The science evidence that informed this assessment is available in this Waste and Resource Recovery chapter PDF icon SoE2018ScientificAssessment_W.pdf

What the indicators tell us

There are no downward trends for Victoria’s waste indicators, with 5 out of the 6 being stable. Apart from the 4 indicators that are fair, the amount of total waste generated in the state is poor, while the amount of litter and illegal dumping is good and improving.

The Waste and Resource Recovery Indicator Report Card provides an assessment summary of all indicators in this chapter PDF icon SoE2018IndicatorReportCard_W.pdf

More detail


Waste is produced at all stages of extraction, consumption and creation of products and services, as well as at the end of a product’s lifecycle. Within a traditionally linear model of economy, the ‘take-make-waste’ process results in a range of negative impacts on Victoria’s environment: depletion of natural resources, environmental pollution and a compounding of the risks and effects of climate change.

Depending upon the way it is managed, waste can have multiple environmental impacts, including:

  • greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

  • amenity impacts and pollution of water from landfill (particularly groundwater)

  • impacts on amenity, ecosystems and human health from hazardous wastes

  • increased energy and water use, and accompanying GHG emissions, through utilisation of virgin materials rather than recycled products

  • impacts of unmanaged outputs such as litter and dumped wastes.

Reducing these impacts requires prioritising avoiding waste in the first place, minimising externalities through avoiding unnecessary wastes, and focusing on resource efficiency and productivity.

When resources are not re-used, recycled or used efficiently, waste is created and there is an opportunity lost as the material can no longer be used to contribute to the economy. Victoria produced approximately 12.9 million tonnes of solid waste in 2016–17, a figure which has been relatively steady over the past five years. Figure W.1 illustrates the trend over the previous 10 years. Note that a further 1.4 million tonnes of hazardous waste is estimated to be managed in Victoria.,

Recycling waste not only returns materials to the economy but also reduces the demand for resource extraction. In most instances, creating products from recycled waste materials uses less energy and water than manufacturing products from virgin materials.1 In 2016–17, of the 12.9 million tonnes of solid waste produced, approximately 67% or 8.6 million tonnes was recovered for reprocessing. However, 4.2 million tonnes still went to landfill.

The concepts of waste minimisation and recycling of materials are central to the development of a circular economy, where material that would previously have been classified as ‘waste’ is retained in the system and repurposed. A circular economy aims to redefine growth by decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system.

Circular economic thinking requires a whole-of-system approach. It is a critical component in climate change mitigation, and it underpins the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sustainable consumption and production – critical elements in the circular economy – are incorporated into Goal 12 of the SDGs (‘Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’). Having a full understanding of their interactions, both positive and negative, is key to unlocking their full potential.

Since a significant amount of global GHG emissions are a result of the management of materials, there are emissions reduction benefits in implementing the circular economy.

While Victoria has continued to increase its waste recovery rate, waste volumes continue to grow. The waste and resource recovery sector in Victoria is facing the following challenges:

  • Increasing volumes of material are entering the waste and resource recovery sector. As Victoria’s population grows, so too is the amount of materials that are used and discarded. By 2046, this figure is projected to reach 20 million tonnes – an increase of 57% on the 2015-16 amount.

  • The existing system is struggling to manage waste materials and composites that are created in the design of new products (for example composite plastics or emerging battery technologies (lithium-ion)). Also problematic are high volumes of legacy wastes that exist due to lack of recovery methods (for example 7.5 million tonnes of dewatered contaminated biosolids at Melbourne’s Western Treatment Plant).

  • Victoria’s recycling system – household collections in particular – has been impacted by major disruptions and restrictions in global commodity markets, particularly from China and other south-east Asian export destinations. This has highlighted vulnerabilities in resource recovery including heavy reliance on the exporting of unsorted comingled recycling (baled plastic, paper and cardboard) for processing and a lack of diversification in local markets. While exports and commodity prices of high-value paper, cardboard and metals continue, market disruptions have highlighted the need to develop a stronger and more resilient recycling system and to ensure that recovered materials are used for productive purposes such as re-manufacturing, domestically.

  • Managing increasing diffuse sources of pollution (litter and illegal dumping) presents management and monitoring issues for waste that does not enter the formal collection system. While there has been a long-term trend of reduction in litter in Victoria as measured by the annual National Litter Index, problematic materials such as plastics accumulate in the environment for many years because they do not biodegrade.

  • Food waste is estimated to be nearly 1,000,000 tonnes annually and at least 20% of all food produced, contributing to undue pressure on finite natural resources, the environment and climate change.

Current Victorian Government Settings

Materials and wastes can be harmful to human health, damage the natural environment and impact on amenity. Therefore, the system, which is regulated by EPA Victoria, must operate to minimise these risks. Under the Environment Protection Act 1970, EPA Victoria can develop waste management policies (WMPs) to improve management of waste and material streams. WMPs provide enforceable statewide objectives and directions. Currently, a series of WMPs address movement of controlled waste, landfills, used packaging materials and other waste-related operations.

Sustainability Victoria has a legislated responsibility for long-term planning for waste and recycling infrastructure in the state. It released the first Statewide Waste and Resource Recovery Infrastructure Plan (SWRRIP) in 2015, with an update in April 2018 to reflect the priorities identified in the seven regional implementation plans. The SWRRIP provides a blueprint for investment and highlights the gap between current capacity and future needs.

The SWRRIP is premised on a circular economy model. It sets goals and strategic directions to ensure that the system continues not only to provide an efficient and well-operated service, but also to maximise the recovery of materials and reduce reliance on landfill. It draws on data and information from a range of sources and identifies opportunities – both local and statewide – to increase infrastructure and the recovery of materials. The strategic directions underpin government interventions, but also play a critical role in informing industry investment and government decisions, such as strategic land-use planning and approvals. The SWRRIP critically notes the importance of viable markets for recycled materials and has led to an increased focus on the recovery of organic materials, which is building momentum for a significant increase in recovery. Monitoring and evaluation will measure progress and inform future iterations and action.

Since the SWRRIP’s publication, Victorian Government investments from the Sustainability Fund have been aligned to priorities identified in the Plan. Sustainability Victoria has also worked to promote opportunities for investment and growth in Victoria’s resource recovery sector through its Investment Facilitation Service.

While the primary role of the SWRRIP is to plan for the infrastructure needed to manage the waste and materials entering the waste and resource recovery system, the Victorian Government’s supporting initiatives provide a broader framework that include:

  • Victorian Organics Resource Recovery Strategy

  • Victorian Market Development Strategy for Recovered Resources

  • Victorian Waste Education Strategy

  • Victoria’s Waste and Resource Recovery Infrastructure Investment Prospectus

  • Waste Data Service.

The Victorian Government has also provided funding in 2018–19 to build a better evidence base for hazardous waste management. This will deliver a research program for new and emerging hazardous wastes, better data management and collection, and an agreed process to include hazardous waste in the SWRRIP.

Recycling Industry Strategic Plan

On 3 July 2018 the Victorian Government released Victoria’s Recycling Industry Strategic Plan which sets out a vision for a more sustainable, resilient and efficient recycling sector. The suite of complementary actions included in the plan aims to support industry in the medium to long-term, minimise costs for Victorian households, and improve the resilience of Victoria's recycling sector.

The implementation of this plan will be supported by a $37 million package of initiatives that includes:

  • leveraging private investment in recycling infrastructure

  • ensuring Victorians clearly understand what they should place in their recycling bin

  • supporting research institutions and industry to identify new uses for priority waste materials

  • leveraging government procurement to drive demand for recycled materials

  • developing a whole-of-government circular economy policy and action plan by 2020.

It is an important step for Victoria and reaffirms the state’s intention to work towards a circular economy.

Greater efficiency and resilience in the recycling sector will be important in anticipating and reducing costs in the longer term.

E-waste Management

Electronic waste (or ‘e‑waste’) volumes are growing three times faster than general municipal waste. E‑waste contains hazardous components that pose risks to the environment and human health, and valuable materials that can be recovered. To manage this growing waste stream, the Victorian Government has new regulatory measures that will ban e-waste from landfill and specify how e-waste must be managed. These will take effect on 1 July 2019.

To support these regulatory measures, the government has committed to upgrading Victoria’s e‑waste collection network, which will increase community access to safe e‑waste disposal points. The government also recently launched an education and communication campaign that will increase community and industry awareness of e‑waste and what to do with it.

Managing the Risks from Stockpiled Combustible Materials

The Victorian Government is committed to reducing the risk of fire at waste and resource recovery facilities. In August 2017, the interim Waste Management Policy (Resource Recovery Facilities) placed requirements on sites that store combustible and recyclable waste materials to minimise their fire risk. The interim policy was replaced by a longer-term Waste Management Policy (Combustible Recyclable and Waste Materials) in August 2018.

The Resource Recovery Facilities Audit Taskforce was also established in 2017. It has conducted 295 on-site inspections across 114 sites, issued 70 remedial notices and 10 sanctions (as at 3 July 2018). Compliance has been achieved by about 50% of notice recipients. The Taskforce has been actively working with facilities through those inspections to minimise their fire risk and improve their understanding of obligations.

Addressing Plastic Pollution

The Victorian Government recently announced that a ban on lightweight plastic shopping bags will come into effect in Victoria by the end of 2019. The ban will include degradable, biodegradable and compostable plastic shopping bags. Victoria is also working with other states, the Commonwealth, and retail associations on a national voluntary phase-out of thick plastic bags. The government will consider designing the ban so that thicker plastic bags can be included in the future if voluntary action is not effective.

In 2019, the Victorian Government will develop a plastic pollution reduction plan to prioritise the most effective actions to reduce other types of plastic pollution, such as beverage containers, balloons and cigarette butts. The government is establishing a reference group of government, industry, community and environmental representatives to help guide this plan.

The SoE 2018 indicators and analysis can be understood in terms of the circular economy – all aspects of which need to function to maximise the sustainable use of resources. Stakeholders need to think and act operationally

Future Focus

Institutional Framework for Waste and Resources Recovery to Support a Circular Economy

One of the key priorities of the SWRRIP is the consolidation of infrastructure to collect and process recovered resources. Household and municipal waste from across local government areas is an anchor for investment in infrastructure by providing reliable, base-load volumes and creating the opportunity for potentially longer contract terms which are conducive to investment in best practice technologies for resource reuse and recovery. Victoria has seven regional Waste and Resource Recovery Groups (WRRGs), the largest of which is the Metropolitan WRRG servicing an area where the majority of Victoria’s population live. The WRRGs share an important purpose to undertake collective, strategic procurements for local government. Given the importance of collaborative procurement in making large volumes of recovered materials available to the market, it would be timely to evaluate success against desired objectives and what changes may be required to achieve the step change delivering that a circular economy would need. Anecdotal evidence suggests there is scope to accelerate the pace and scale of joint procurements, however solid, contemporary evidence is required to identify where barriers exist and how best to remove them.

Resource recovery infrastructure needs to be established and upgraded so that recovered materials are sorted and processed to a higher standard. These recycled materials need strong domestic markets – so that various types of wastes are ‘pulled’ through into other material uses and products by stimulating market demand.

Recommendation: That the Victorian Government, commencing within the Metropolitan region as a minimum, align the institutional planning and procurement processes (including leveraging Victorian Government procurement) to support the delivery of the circular economy strategy from July 2020. Ultimately, this alignment would be adopted statewide and enable an orderly transition to a circular economy in Victoria by 2030. In developing the action plan to deliver the circular economy strategy, the roles and responsibilities of all agencies should be clarified to nominate those agencies responsible for delivering policy, procurement, program, reporting and regulatory roles. Further, that the Victorian Government commit to long term, systemic, statewide community education to support this transition and assist the change in behaviours that will be required to improve, long-term system outcomes. Reducing consumption and contamination levels in kerbside recycling would be the initial focus.  PDF icon SoE2018Recommendations_WR.pdf

UN Environmental Economic Accounts

Environmental-economic accounting provides a framework for measuring flows of waste within the economy and from the economy to the environment. In the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA), waste is categorised as a product flow or residual flow within the economy, or a residual flow from the economy to the environment.

Waste accounts record these connections, showing the generation (supply) and use of waste by different economic units (such as industry, government and households). Over time, accounts can be used to identify trends in waste generation and use by different sectors, including the relationship between waste generation or use and economic activity. Waste accounts provide a useful set of information for evaluating government, industry and household waste management activity.

In 2013, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) produced Australia’s first and only waste accounts, which valued the supply of waste management in 2009–10 at just over $9.5 billion. These accounts report supply and use of waste in physical (tonnes) and monetary (purchasers’ prices) terms, and they align with industry classifications used by the ABS.

Unlike some residual flows, such as air emissions, solid waste often remains within the economy as it is recycled or disposed of in controlled landfills. However, there can be residual flows of liquids and gaseous materials (such as leachate and methane) from landfills to the environment. Solid waste also enters the environment as litter or dumping.

Ecosystems can be a sink for waste, providing important waste assimilation services through processing and absorption of residuals. In the case of solid waste, assimilation services are limited, as waste materials such as plastic and metal take a long time to break down. This is different to other residual flows from the economy to the environment, such as air emissions or nutrients, which are more readily assimilated.

Case studies

Sustainable streets paved with plastic

One Melbourne council is reducing landfill and saving carbon emissions by using recycled plastic and glass to resurface its roads.

Saving through paving

A road resurfacing project in the City of Yarra in late 2018 trialled Green Roads PolyPave™, an innovative, high-performance product containing recycled materials including plastic, glass and asphalt.

Two roads in the inner-city suburb of Richmond were the first to be resurfaced using PolyPave™. The initial project reduced landfill by 97.3 tonnes and carbon emissions by 633 kilograms. Approximately 7,300 two-litre plastic bottles and 55,000 glass bottles – equivalent to 1,500 wheelie bins of waste plastic and glass – were saved from landfill. Several tonnes of recycled asphalt were also incorporated into the green mix design.

The trial was so successful that the City of Yarra is repaving more streets in the area with PolyPave™, saving an additional 25,000 plastic bottles from entering landfill.

Better than bitumen

Developed by Melbourne-based sustainable materials producer Alex Fraser Group, PolyPave™ is durable and can be used on any road, regardless of traffic volumes. The surface has performed well in testing and is expected to last at least as long as traditional road surfaces. As well there is no reduction of skid resistance, and the material maintains its strength or shape over time. It can also withstand higher pavement temperatures than traditional surfaces, as the recycled plastic has a higher softening point temperature than the bitumen binder used in asphalt mix.

The project shows how councils can re-use waste generated in their community to construct and maintain their cities and reduce the carbon footprint of projects like this by up to 65%.

Discover more

Mining old phones for metal

Along with the 22 million mobile phones Australians discard every year, we’re also throwing away precious metals that could be recycled.

e-waste is hazardous waste

The average household in Victoria generates 73kg of e-waste each year including mobile phones, computers and TVs.

e-waste contains hazardous materials that can be harmful even in small amounts. In large quantities, they can cause serious long-term environmental damage to our soil, groundwater and air, especially when they’re left in landfill sites.

To stop this environmental damage, the Victorian Government will make it illegal to dispose of e-waste at all Victorian landfill sites from July 2019.

Recycling precious metals and minerals

Stopping e-waste from going to landfill has another huge environmental benefit.

These unwanted electronics contain precious materials such as coltan, copper, silver and gold – all of which can be recycled.

Recycling e-waste lowers the environmental impacts and greenhouse gases that are created in their mining and production, and means we won’t run out of these finite resources as quickly. While each mobile phone may only contain a tiny amount of precious minerals and metals, the overall amount that can be recovered each year is huge.

Making e-waste recycling easy

To encourage Victorians to recycle more e-waste, Sustainability Victoria is increasing the number of places where it can be left for recycling. Its goal is for 98% of all Victorians to be less than a 30-minute drive away from an e-waste disposal point.

Discover more

Underground petrol puddles

Leaking tanks at service stations cause underground petrol puddles that contaminate the nearby land and groundwater. A new program sees the Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) working hand in hand with petrol station owners to tackle this problem.

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/s2art/

Fuelling harm

Service stations store petrol in underground tanks that often leak. Not only do the puddles that form from the leaked fuel contaminate the environment, there’s also a risk that people close by are exposed to harmful vapours or even direct skin contact.

The EPA health-check program

In 2015, the EPA created a new program that sees the authority working with service station owners to help them improve the way they manage underground tanks.

The first step in the program was asking owners to evaluate their current practices and tell the EPA how they were going to improve them if necessary. After assessing the responses and  communicating with owners to make them more aware of their obligations, the EPA had officers inspecting service stations to identify pollution and discuss management practices.

Overcoming the challenges

The program faced several challenges:

  • self-assessment is useful but not always reliable

  • not all petrol stations keep good records of how they manage their environmental responsibilities

  • tanks aren’t visible underground so they’re hard to monitor

  • there’s no direct link to legislation, so obligations are hard to enforce.

Fixing the leaks

Even with these challenges, the program has been a success, with most service station owners participating in the program.

Operators have a higher awareness of their responsibilities and the EPA has a greater understanding of where leaking tanks are located.

EPA has identified more than 200 service stations that need to improve the way they manage tanks in the future. And they continue to inspect sites and educate petrol station owners.

Discover more

When the rubber hits the road

Scientists are taking one of our most stubborn waste problems and transforming it into one of our most needed products.

Paving the way

Millions of used tyres are thrown out every year in Australia, with most ending up as landfill. Not only are they an environmental hazard in their own right because of harmful emissions – stockpiles of tyres are a very high fire risk – and burning tyres result in toxic smoke. Only about 5% of tyres are recycled locally.

Now a team of researchers from the University of Melbourne, led by infrastructure engineering academic Dr Madhi Miri Disfani, has come up with a new way to use used tyres – turning them into roads.

There are already ways to turn recycled tyres into pavements. But because the material is so flexible due to its rubber content, the paving hasn’t been able to withstand the heavy loads that roads and even bike paths need to take.

Working in partnership with Tyre Stewardship Australia and Merline Site Services, the University of Melbourne team is developing the perfect ‘recipe’ for recycled tyres that makes the surface flexible enough to reduce cracks but sturdy enough to take heavy traffic.

Double benefit

Not only does the new surface save tyres from landfill, it can also help to manage stormwater flows that are currently challenging cities, especially Melbourne. Because water can travel through the paving, using the new surface reduces surface run-off when heavy rain falls. Instead the water will infiltrate the material and flow to a city’s water collection systems and gardens.

Trying the tyre

The team is now trialling the new surface on a larger scale, with different recipes being compared for different purposes. They’re also working to make it cost effective enough to create demand for used tyres and stop millions more going to landfill.