If bins could talk: NSW’s waste trends revealed

A distaste for waste? See what our garbage is telling us.

Image: City of Sydney

A sound like thunder grumbles through the neighbourhood. Not from a rainstorm, but residents wheeling their rubbish bins to the kerbside before collection day.

Almost 3 million households across New South Wales have access to a council kerbside waste service, according to the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA). 

NSW also produces more than 3.5 million tonnes of waste each year on average. Residual waste — waste that is neither recyclable nor organic — comprises around 2 million tonnes of this amount.

The latest available data reveals that Blacktown produced the most residual waste in 2020-2021, generating over 110,000 tonnes. This was followed by Canterbury-Bankstown with 88,000 tonnes, and the Central Coast with 83,000 tonnes.

This should come as no surprise, as these three LGAs are the most populous in NSW, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

There is a strong correlation between population size and amount of waste produced across all waste streams except for garden organics, where the correlation is more moderate.

However, if waste generation is measured on a per capita basis, other LGAs come to the forefront. Broken Hill generated 12.4 kilograms of residual waste per person a week (kg/ca/wk), while the City of Sydney sat on 12 kg/ca/wk. To put this into perspective, the average across NSW was 4.7 kg/ca/wk.

Further, while Canterbury-Bankstown and the Central Coast match the state’s average, Blacktown exceeds it, with 6 kg/ca/wk.

According to a series of audits conducted by Rawtec from 2011-2019, half of the contents of a residual waste bin in NSW is made up of total organics. This includes food, wood, textiles, and rubber. The second largest category is paper and paper products, making up 18 per cent on average.

The third largest category found in residual waste bins is plastics.

Plastics are synthetic materials made from petrochemicals. They are made up of long, repeating molecule chains called polymers which determine the type of plastic they create.

According to the NSW Department of Planning and Environment, the state generates over 800,000 tonnes of plastic each year, but only 10 per cent of it is recycled.

“One of the main challenges for recycling is separating,” says Jack Steel, a PhD student at the University of Sydney researching plastic decomposition.

This is because kerbside recycling is co-mingled, with all recyclables placed in the same yellow bin. 

“If you want to recycle plastics, you have to actually separate them out first from all the glass and paper and other recyclables, and then separate them by type of plastic and colour of plastic,” he says.

This is the rationale behind the implementation of schemes like Return and Earn, which not only combat littering but also help streamline the sorting process for recycling.

The cost and facilities required for recycling means that councils will only accept certain materials from kerbside bins. While most plastics can technically be recycled, the process for certain types of plastics may prove too costly or resource-intensive for a council to justify doing so.

Even then, recycling is not perfect.

“The conventional method of recycling plastics involves melting and remoulding them into whatever product you want,” Steel says.

“The effects of heat eventually cause degradation in the plastic such that you can only recycle them this way a limited number of times.”

Some plastics, such as the polyethylene terephthalate in water bottles, can be recycled numerous times due to their relatively low melting point, but others can only be recycled once or twice.

“Current recycling methods that we have are not doing much in terms of solving this crisis because most of the plastic is still in landfill, still in the environment,” he says.  

For Steel, the future lies in chemical recycling technologies.

“We’re trying to turn these long chain plastics back into the small molecules that we made them from in the first place,” he says.

One promising technique that Steel identified is hydrothermal liquefaction, which involves using pressurised water in a supercritical state to break down plastics into a crude-oil-like mixture. The small building blocks of plastic can then be extracted from the mixture after it is refined, creating a closed loop where new plastic is created from old plastic.

“Hydrothermal also has the advantage of being able to deal with mixed plastics without needing to sort them,” he says.

“A big part of the problem that we face is our current recycling technologies are set up to accept single types of plastic that our recycling system collected commingled. It’s that bottleneck of ‘are we bothered to sort it out’ that is really holding us back.”

While hydrothermal liquefaction is “still a very emerging technology”, Steel is optimistic about the future.

“There are a lot of chemical companies out there who have seen the potential that this technology offers and are embracing it,” he says. “It is starting to be rolled out in terms of pilot plants and industrial scale plants.” 

But the fight against waste also occurs at its inception.

Mosman resident Allison Licence started her journey to proactively reduce her waste after learning about Australia’s waste exports to China in the context of the country’s 2017 waste import ban.

“I’d always been diligent with my recycling but when I found out that a lot of it wasn’t actually being reused for other things but rather shipped overseas, it really freaked me out about where all this stuff was going to end up,” she says.

Even now, half of all of the recycling obtained from Return and Earn is exported to Asia and Europe.

Photographs of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch were also a big wake up call for Licence.

“Being an ocean lover and a surfer and a swimmer, I just hated seeing those images of that plastic,” she says.

Licence has undertaken a variety of measures to significantly cut down on her waste generation. These include downsizing her council kerbside bins to limit the amount she can throw out, composting her food scraps, as well as strategically purchasing products with minimal packaging.

But data from the EPA shows that the total amount of domestic waste produced in NSW across all streams has increased, growing from 3.1 million tonnes in 2005-2006 to 4 million tonnes in 2020-2021.

However, the proportion of this waste which is recycled or recovered has increased as well.

The recycling/recovery rate from total waste varies across LGAs. Kiama, in NSW’s south coast, had the highest with 75 per cent, while Fairfield was in the bottom ten with 13 per cent.

Mosman, where Licence lives, had a rate of 44 per cent, which is slightly lower than the state’s overall rate of 46 per cent.

Echoing Jack Steel’s sentiments, Licence emphasises the importance of sorting household waste to ensure recycling is maximised.

“People need to take that extra step and not just put everything in those two [kerbside] bins and think it’ll be fine,” she says. “You have to work a bit harder than that and find the right avenues.” 

Licence recommends having separate bins for different recyclables as well as a special “misfits” tub for harder-to-recycle items such as batteries or soft plastics.

Soft plastics can be returned at supermarkets such as Woolworths, but Licence noted there are also private waste companies that are able to recycle and repurpose items which regular kerbside recycling cannot handle.

One example is RecycleSmart, a company who has currently partnered with 13 LGA councils including Mosman, to help residents recycle soft plastics, e-waste, toxic items, and clothes.

Licence also suggests researching which specialty collection services the local council offers and marking the collection dates on a calendar.

But for Licence, recycling is the last resort. 

“You should think about how you can reuse, repurpose or repair an item before recycling,” she says. “Think of waste as a resource rather than something that goes in the bin.”

Licence also works at the climate change action group 1 Million Women that helps teach people how to cut carbon pollution in their daily lives. In addition to the informational blog posts she writes, Licence is the coordinator of the 1 Million Women app, a downloadable smartphone program that helps users calculate how much carbon they can save by changing their ways — including their waste practices.  

While individual responsibility regarding waste is important, it is paramount that change also happens on a systemic level in collaboration with legislators.

In line with the Plastic Reduction and Circular Economy Act (2021), lightweight plastic bags were banned in NSW from June this year, followed by single-use straws, cutlery, and plates in November.

Bans on other items such as plastic heavy bags and cups will be reviewed within three years. This is all part of the NSW government’s Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy to phase out problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2025.