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Report highlights waste as an essential industry in growing infrastructure in Australia

The 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit report tackles some of the waste industry’s major challenges by pushing for solutions such as adopting new technology and boosting the uptake of a circular economy.

While these solutions are not news to the industry, they reiterate the need for change and adoption of new ideas to improve waste infrastructure in Australia. It is also the first time the waste industry has featured in the audit – showing the urgency of building a strong waste industry.

The audit, which also examines the major infrastructure sectors of energy, transport, telecommunications, water and social infrastructure, delves into the challenges and opportunities over the next 15 years and beyond.

The report highlights challenges in the waste industry such as a limited number of new waste facilities and landfill sites, a lack of a mature market for private investment and a “patchwork of government regulation”.

Despite indicating there is plenty that can be improved, the report also highlights that these challenges and others, such as export constraints, are opening opportunities for the industry including a growing interest in the circular economy.

It also explains that there is a chance to capitalise on increased demand for recycled products and larger economies of scale as waste generation increases.

Additionally, using new technology could make waste transport more efficient and environmentally-friendly, the report indicated. Looking beyond fuel, waste collection may be well suited to autonomous vehicles, which can drive themselves from one wheelie-bin to the next along a pre-programmed route.

Recognising change is needed as waste continues to grow

The report reiterates that Australia generates a large amount of waste per capita. In 2016–17, Australia generated an estimated 54 megatonnes of waste – equivalent to 2.2 tonnes per capita. While on par with other developed countries in total terms, household waste generation per capita is 9 per cent above the average for a selection of 11 European and Southeast Asian countries.

With a projected population of 37 million people by 2050, Australia’s annual waste could rise to 81 megatonnes per annum.

At the household level Australians recovered 62 per cent of waste materials through recycling and energy recovery in 2016-17 – an increase from 55 per cent in 2006-07.

However, the strong culture of recycling and reuse seen in some European countries has not developed. For instance, countries such as Denmark (94 per cent) and the United Kingdom (75 per cent) have a significant focus on waste reduction and of reprocessing waste that is created including through energy recovery from waste.

The report recognised that with Australia’s increasing waste generation, lack of a mature market for private investment, and reliance on waste export, action needs to be taken onshore to avoid waste becoming costlier and environmentally damaging.

Landfills are themselves under long-term pressure. The exact number of existing landfill sites is unknown, but the report indicated there are estimated to be 600 registered sites and potentially as many as 2,000 unregulated facilities.

Infrastructure Australia chair, Julieanne Alroe, said changing and growing demand, and a mounting maintenance backlog is putting unprecedented pressure on the infrastructure services each and every Australian relies on.

“The current infrastructure program must do more than plug the immediate funding gap, but instead deliver long-term changes to the way we plan, fund and deliver infrastructure.

“Rather than a short-term boom, the historic level of activity we are seeing in the sector must, and is likely, to continue for the next 15 years and potentially beyond. This must be the new normal if we are to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead,” Alroe said.

She explained that the audit found that infrastructure in Australia’s four largest cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth – is failing to keep pace with rapid population growth, particularly on the urban fringe.

“With our population projected to grow by 24 per cent to reach 31.4 million by 2034, our largest cities are expected to see pressure on access to infrastructure.

“The dominance of infill development in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane will require investment in high capacity public transport, enhancements to existing energy and water infrastructure, improved shared spaces and a renewal of inner city health and education services,” Alroe said.

Infrastructure Australia is calling for feedback and submissions in response to 136 challenges and 44 opportunities identified in the 2019 Audit. Submissions will be open until October 31, 2019.