The future of waste management

By September 29th, 2020

Forging trust between the waste industry and the Australian community will be critical for implementing new sustainable waste management solutions.

pile of rubbish mainly made up of plastic drink bottles

With an estimated 67 million tonnes of waste generated by Australians every year, reducing waste going to landfill is considered a favourable environmental outcome by the Australian community, government, industry and researchers.

As our population grows, so will our waste. Waste management is an essential service for protecting our environment, safeguarding public health, and providing economic benefit through jobs and new industries.

Finding solutions to reduce Australia’s waste production includes generating alternate sustainable outcomes for our waste through: the recovery of materials from waste streams; turning them into reusable resources; and reducing the need for landfills.

Ensuring solutions meet public expectations and are delivered in ways that are acceptable to communities is integral for achieving a social licence for the waste sector.

Meeting community expectations

Only 12 per cent of rubbish is recycled. This includes plastics, glass, metals and food. Australia’s National Waste Action Plan aims to reduce by half the amount of organic waste sent to landfill by 2030 and to increase the recovery rates of recycled materials to 80 per cent.

Achieving these targets and outcomes will require a range of initiatives.

Dr. Andrea Walton and Dr Rod McCrea are CSIRO Social Scientists and recognise the importance of working with the community to build understanding of waste initiatives and infrastructure; their trust in industry and governance, and to understand their concerns and expectations of waste and resource recovery industries. This includes possible economic and environmental benefits that such industries can bring.

“Trust in industry and the sector is fundamental to achieving and maintaining this social licence,” Dr Walton explained.

“When an Australian puts their rubbish in a recycling bin, they need to have faith that it will be processed appropriately. Generating community trust in the waste and recycling process will play a key role in transforming the waste sector.”

Council recycling bin and general waste bin

Recycling is one component of the waste management stream

Investment in the Australian waste sector

The waste sector is going through an exciting transformation as it modernises and works towards a circular economy approach. Understanding community needs and expectations is essential for the waste industry to introduce new infrastructure, technologies and operations.

“Obtaining and maintaining a social licence to operate are key for waste operators. Projects could be delayed or cancelled if acceptance by local communities is not achieved,” Dr McCrea said.

“Restrictions on exporting our waste overseas is being phased in over the next few years so Australia will need to manage its own waste. It’s more critical than ever to find solutions that avoid this waste ending up in landfill. We also need to shift our culture of using single-use products that are quickly thrown away to an increase in the re-use of products.”

The Government has announced a $190 million investment in new waste and recycling infrastructure. This investment supports building more efficient waste facilities to sort, process and remanufacture materials. This has the potential to divert more than 10 million tonnes of waste from landfill and create 10,000 jobs.

Bringing community and industry together

Dr Walton’s research is focused on understanding community attitudes to waste, as well as encouraging waste reducing behaviours.

“Waste management is considered an essential service, as demonstrated during COVID-19 experiences where waste management performed critical roles in maintaining public safety.

Forward planning on how to manage waste safely and effectively is an expectation of citizens. This type of planning builds trust in the sector and contributes to people’s social acceptance of the need for different types of activities and infrastructure to manage our waste,” Dr Walton said.

“Converting household waste, not able to be recycled or reused, to energy is one approach to waste management that is under consideration in some parts of Australia.

“If waste to energy technologies become part of Australia’s sustainable waste management solutions, understanding community concerns, perceptions, and expectations of this industry are important. New technologies can speed up these solutions; however, ensuring such solutions are delivered in ways that are acceptable to communities is integral for achieving a social licence.

“If a site is marked for development as a waste site, its proximity to a local community could generate possible concern. It’s bringing the community needs to industry to ensure effective waste management systems and protocols are put in place from the get-go.”

Social licence for new waste infrastructure

Mark Smith, Chief Executive Officer of the Waste and Recycling Industry Association of Queensland, is utilising CSIRO social licence research to engage closely with waste management businesses, government and local communities on waste developments. He says the waste sector – for both at home and in the workplace – is more than just recycling. It connects to tens of thousands of jobs throughout the supply chain, including logistics, liquid waste and e-waste.

“Waste services in Queensland contribute more than $1 billion to the state economy annually. Global economic outlook for our sector has us on the cusp of rapid growth and I predict us to grow faster than other sectors in the Australian market,” Smith said.

The challenge is not only how to deal with waste now, but also long-term planning. There needs to be planning for what the sector should look like in 2030, or even 2050, to manage the waste needs of Australia’s population.

“We all have a shared responsibility for the waste we generate, and how we dispose of it. Cost implications for managing waste is an important part of the conversation, as is bringing together councils, industry and the public to understand and implement new waste innovations and processes,” Smith said.

“Social licence to operate principles enable us to understand what the community wants from our waste services and identifies our collective role to dealing with the waste challenges ahead of us.”

container deposit facility

Increasing the value of plastic is a complex problem, linking economic incentives, consumer behaviour, commercial strategy and government policy.

Incentivising behavioural change

Incentivising behavioural changes will lead to improved economic gains for communities, organisations, and companies involved in the plastic supply chain.

“Actions by communities themselves will also be critical to driving change in how Australia manages its waste,” Dr Walton said.

“We will achieve long-term shifts in how we use plastics and other materials by combining validated socio-economic incentives with industry innovation. We have already seen success with this for aluminium cans with the public receiving a monetary benefit for returning their rubbish.

“With industry and community support, we can turn waste into a sustainable commodity through responsible innovation. This has real potential to transform Australia’s waste sector.”

Find out more about our research solutions to help tackle waste and plastic pollution.



  1. We need to speed up the process of reducing waste and especially plastics. Current bag bans in many states and territories are a toothless tiger approach to a devastating growing environmental disaster> Expectations are set too low, dates are set to far away to really affect global warming and communities need and demand action. This could reduce waste, save the planet and create jobs if handled correctly. What the heck are we waiting for.

  2. One important aspect is for local Councils to embrace small recycling businesses. Too often these hard working operators are treated like second class citizens, rather than given the encouragement they need and deserve.

  3. Surely the best thing to do with non-recyclable waste, which includes most plastics is to burn it in purpose built incinerators. Yes, plastic can produce toxins when burnt but this can be avoided by using high combustion temperatures. This is being done successfully in Denmark and elsewhere. It is more likely to be successful than attempts to change human behaviour.

  4. Fantastic you are looking into this area, I hope you are looking at Packaging!!!!!!. Gone is the Brown paper bag, now layers of glossy plastic advertising. If Society is ever going to change, we have to also look at why its cheaper to replace then repair.
    Reduce the waste and make sure we can recycle what is left

  5. Are you interested in recycling all coffee grounds in coffee shops into a usable / saleable product

  6. I am extremely passionate about recycling and composting. I am really glad to hear about the government’s incentive to boost community education and to address more recycling initiatives. I really believe green waste facilities need to also be established in Queensland and throughout Australia.

  7. Can you make any comment on the Australian pilot scheme Licella, which seems to
    have great potential re plastics waste recycling.

  8. I worry that the cost of recycling is significantly higher than the cost of the various alternatives – e.g. simply land-filling, waste to energy etc. That higher cost has an alternative use (the opportunity cost) that may bring a greater return. I see lots of warm and fuzzy stuff but no economic analyses. I do not doubt they exist but the economics is what will persuade me. economic benefit will vary with ‘waste’ type – eg Aluminium – high, corrugated cardboard – low.

  9. Great to see CSIRO getting involved in Waste/Recycling. This has to be taught both in home and reinforced within the educational institutions. This is the only way to change human behaviour. We here in WAhave just started recycling our bottles and cans and has had an immediate effect. Hopefully our government will up the recycling to waste food and other materials which can be recycled.

  10. Waste to energy should only be invested in to replace short term energy generating like gas, as burning reduces the likelihood of re-use of materials and needs to be a better environment outcome than other generators

  11. I wonder if the jobs involved in waste pathway planning and reuse might be more explained in detail. I think if people can read about the tasks involved, and get a feeling for the teamwork, the creativity, the use of their judgement and ideas, then there’s the incentive for going for those jobs, and taking TAFE training maybe, to get there.

  12. This is all very well, but the problem
    Has been caused by manufacturing more than the public.
    We need to work with them to reduce the creation of waste viz. Unecessary packaging, mixed materials in packaging, unclear labelling of component packaging materials.
    Few people are able to confidently determine what goes in which bin, especially around mixed component packaging.
    Packaging should be reduced wherever feasible and numbers of components minimilised. All components should then be ckearly labelled with s recyling code to correspond with a standardised council waste collection code.

  13. There should be a tax on all non recyclable packaging and a tax on the recycable packing which is not recycled ie if a particular type of packaging is 50% recycled then the tax on that type should be 50% if the nonrecyclable. This would encourage the use compostable packaging such as that made from fungi and other natural materials.

    It i important to change the economics of packaging. recycling by itself is a bandaid, high temperature incineration produces its own wastes and is energy intensive, no post consumer response can alter the fact there is a waste stream and even under the best scenarios this will always lead to suboptimal results

    1. Couldn’t agree more. We also need to make “dumping” really expensive. All “rubbish” should need to go through a sorting process at the actual dump and if found to be a mixture of recyclables and actual waste the person doing the dumping has a larger fee. Follow the EU with regard to circular manufacturing and recycling. Have small recycling plants regionally. especially look at “bringing back” all of the elements that went into the product. I did read that there are more rare minerals in our eWaste than that which is left in the ground. Surely this is where we should be putting our research $

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