Zero Waste Initiatives viewed from a capital city’s experience


Zero Waste Initiatives viewed from a capital city’s experience.

Canberra, Australia

This case study is one of nine contributing to the Green Alliance paper An International Survey of Zero Waste Initiatives. The overview paper gives the background to this work and captures the findings and recommendations drawn from these longer case studies.


Canberra is the capital city of Australia, and occupies most of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), one of the two territories and six states making up federal Australia.

Canberra has a combined state-level government and city government. The city has a population of 325,000, with another 30,000 in satellite towns. We spoke to Chris Horsey, the manager of the ACT NOwaste programme.

ACT NOWaste is a business unit of the Department of Urban Services, implementing
the ACT Government’s Waste Management Strategy. Amongst other things the unit takes responsibility for providing strategic planning and policy advice; commissioning and managing contracts for the delivery of recycling and waste services; facilitating maximum recovery of resources within the community; engaging, consulting and
involving the community at all levels.


The ACT undertook a community consultation in 1995, initially engaging 60 community representatives and then a wider cross-section of society including special interest groups, local government and professional organisations. The community expressed a wish for a waste-free society, hence the NO Waste by 2010 goal. However,
in practice this is acknowledged to mean 95 per cent recycling – there will still be five per cent of residual waste (some 20,000 tonnes) going to landfill.

Canberra does not incinerate any of its waste, and there are no plans to generate energy from waste via thermal technologies, although digestion technologies for energy production are being

Current waste generation in Canberra is some 750,000 tonnes per annum (total waste: household, commercial, construction and demolition, but not mining and agricultural

As the ACT is mainly occupied by the city of Canberra, there is little industrial waste, and hazardous waste is exported out of state because there is no treatment capacity in the ACT. Generation is estimated by conducting a resource recovery industry survey every year that gives the recycling figures, plus landfill figures.

There is a waste inventory on the ACT government web site; although this was done in 1997and another one is being scheduled. Figures for 2003/4 indicated that 52,000 tonnes of household waste were sent to landfill through kerbside collection.

1 The resource recovery figure for all streams for 2003/04 was 500,279 tonnes (this includes paper, containers, garden waste/compost, demolition waste, cooking oil and fat, motor oil, metals, salvage and reused materials, clothing, etc.)

2 The ACT works on the basis of ‘total waste stream reduction’. To meet the 95 per cent recycling goal, ACT NOWaste has estimated that 50,000 tonnes of recyclables need to come from the business area, and another 5,000 tonnes from the municipal sector if households recycle everything possible. For garden waste, food waste and timber,
another 15,000 tonnes is possible from businesses, 7,000 tonnes from households, and 3,000 tonnes of timber out of construction and demolition (C&D). Overall 23,000
tonnes of C&D waste could be recycled. \

Chris Horsey is confident that the Territory knows what to do with all these materials – the infrastructure and services to collect
and process them are already in place, and markets are available. The exception to this is food waste processing, but an alternative waste management technology for dealing with this stream will be put to the ACT government in 2007. Significant work has been
undertaken on market development for garden waste products, and there are a number of garden waste drop-off and processing sites that sell their composted product back to businesses and residents. The focus is now on identifying viable markets for construction and demolition waste material products.

ACT NOWaste knows that although resource recovery is going up, waste generation is also increasing, meaning waste to landfill is decreasing incrementally. Reducing 250,000 tonnes to 204,000 tonnes has taken five years, and now the decrease is
slowing, so recycling is only just keeping pace with increased generation.

ACT NOWaste is struggling with waste avoidance and prevention issues. Chris Horsey is trying to work on sustainable procurement guidelines for the government sector; also ‘smart shopping’ attempting to persuade consumers to buy less – but as yet there is no
indication that these initiatives are making any significant difference.

The Australia Institute published in 2005 a very worrying report on wasteful consumption, including figures on people buying more than they can consume.

3 ACT is not making any current interventions, but Chris Horsey knows that it is an area of weakness. It is a struggle to understand how to change consumption patterns, but one that is essential if a sustainable society is to be achieved. The issue is perhaps one to be
discussed at a national rather than regional level.

It is worth noting that home composting is not seen as waste prevention, rather resource recovery. Composting does not tackle consumption issues at source and one of the findings of the Australia Institute report was that food consumption is one of the
most wasteful streams.

Most important drivers and instruments

It is a big advantage to have the State and City government all in one entity, and in Australia waste is very much the responsibility of State governments. The ACT has the Waste 2001 Act to provide the framework, and the Territory can build its own infrastructure and let its own contracts, so that there is a fully integrated system. The
main instrument is the ability to provide, but also control, the treatment infrastructure and services.

The main instrument stimulating recycling has been the Landfill Pricing Strategy. In 2002 the ACT published ‘Waste Pricing Strategy for the ACT’. This estimated the ‘true’ cost of waste to landfill at some $105 per tonne (comprising $34 per tonne for environmental costs, including greenhouse gas emissions, and $76 per tonne for direct
economic costs), when the ACT was only charging $33 per tonne (landfills and other waste infrastructure are in public ownership). Landfill was the cheapest and most popular option, so the ACT realised this would never drive resource recovery. The price
is now being adjusted – it is currently at $77 and next year it will be $90.

The goal is to reach $105 by 2008. This is important because it reflects the real costs of landfill, but also makes alternative treatment at $80-120 tonne more economic, so stimulating the market. There is an increasing economic incentive for the resource recovery industry to process waste before bringing it to landfill. Collection companies can now make a profit by pulling out the recyclables. Household waste collection is in public hands, but business collection is done by private companies, and they own the waste once collected, so can decide whether it is economic to recycle or not.

Household waste automatically goes through a resource recovery process because the state is paying the collection and infrastructure costs and can afford to choose to divert recyclables from landfill with more economic freedom than profit-maximizing businesses.

The Strategy is explicitly not a landfill tax, it is presented as a price
adjustment to avoid sensitivities about extra taxation.
Household kerbside recycling covers only dry recyclables at present. The ACT conducted a trial bio-waste collection programme and reported back in its publication,

‘The Chiefley Bio Bin Trial Report’.

The report was designed to help determine whether
an organic collection service is able to effectively separate organics into a stream for reprocessing. The conclusion was that not enough was being captured to ensure that the residual waste stream would not require treatment for its organic fraction.

So the ACT decided to omit organics and instead send them to treatment technologies that would make that separation in the plant, instead of at source – a ‘dirty MRF’ (materials recovery facility).

However, residents do deliver a lot of garden organic materials to composting (it is self-delivered and free to dispose), some 190,000 tonnes per annum, and there is a market for the end product from that.

There is no variable charging of householders, and no waste charge separated out from general rates. There is not currently any legislation to reinforce household recycling, however this is something that may be considered in the future. Mandatory recycling
targets for business and government sectors will be considered in 2007 if reductions continue to advance incrementally.
The ACT has produced a Resource Guide – a tool to help local government, industry and the general public identify and locate recyclers and markets for recycled materials.

Markets for most of the recycled materials exist in Australia, although mixed plastics are presently going to India and China.

ACT NOWaste is also working on Resource Recovery Estates on government lands – giving incentives such as long-term sub-leases and discounts on market-based rents.

There is a voluntary packaging covenant at national level, introduced in 1999, and the ACT is a stakeholder. Industries that have signed up to the covenant are obliged to develop and implement waste reduction plans and programs. It is delivering results, but quite slowly, especially in view of Canberra’s 2010 goal. The Covenant was
extensively reviewed throughout 2004 and as a consequence revised and strengthened.

The commitment was extended in terms of recycling targets and no further increases in packaging waste disposed to landfill by the end of 2010. There is a national goal of 65 per cent recycling for post-consumer packaging, incorporating resource recovery of
paper, glass, steel, aluminium and plastics. The rate as of July 2005 was 48 per cent.

4 progress to date

The ACT is currently achieving a 73 per cent recycling rate (there are no figures for household waste in isolation). 550,000 tonnes of waste per annum is being diverted from landfill. Presently, 204,000 tonnes are still going to landfill; 48 per cent of that from the government and business sector.

Construction and demolition separation and processing is working very well – diverting a significant amount through source separated wood metals, concrete, etc.

There are good established markets for C&D waste. However, separation and processing of mixed waste is not so good – the ACT is currently looking at a dirty MRF to separate that out.

Incineration is not seen to be a positive option. The ACT envisages that by 2009 they will have a treatment plant using a composting or anaerobic process for organic waste. The 2010 target will be unattainable without this. Waste to energy in Australia centres
on bio-digestion, however there have been failures on waste technologies and not all plants have worked as intended. The technology has only been around since 1998 and it has proved difficult getting composts to work without contamination and also
problematic meeting compost standards. The ACT has been considering facilities in Israel, Spain and France, waiting for the technologies to mature and be perfected.

It is essential for the Territory to be absolutely clear what the goals and end products will be and whether there is a market for them. There needs to be a very clear understanding of the composition of the waste and hence the possibilities from it. The ACT wants to be able to cite clear evidence for the merits of new technology and so is
taking a long-view approach. New plant capacity is very expensive and if existing technologies can treat, for example, paper and card for $40-50 per tonne; C&D for $50-70 per tonne there is little need to consider high-tech solutions for these materials.

Food waste costs around $80-$120 per tonne to process in a high-tech treatment facility and to avoid unnecessary costs imposed on the community other materials are encouraged to be separated at lower cost options. If materials are properly source separated and treated in isolation it keeps the size and cost of new plant needs down.
Even if the 95 per cent goal is met there will still be around 20,000 tonnes of residual waste to deal with. The ACT will pursue that last five per cent and try to reduce and change its composition, for example through tackling non-recyclable packaging.

Projects such as this may also need approaching at the national level, for example strengthening further the National Packaging Covenant. After 2010 the emphasis is likely to shift to looking at changing life-cycles and bringing in concrete producer responsibility measures. The key to future strategies will therefore be to engender and
sustain change in all areas of waste generation and management.
future approaches and lessons for other countries

(Please take note of the following statements)

The model of ACT NOWaste is important in that legislation, policy, infrastructure and programmes are brought together under an integrated framework. It is important to have an authority, or cooperating authorities, that can address all these elements. This
approach is something that can be transferred to other contexts and is an important element in Canberra’s success to date.

In terms of concrete measures, the landfill pricing strategy demonstrates the power of pricing over regulation and the importance of ensuring that there are economically viable and attractive alternatives to encourage recycling. The ACT has explicitly avoided dubbing the strategy a ‘tax’ and has been trying to bring prices in line with the ‘real’ costs in order to create a meaningful market platform for waste management alternatives.

Community engagement is a big factor in the success of the ACT. The community is generally considered environmentally sensitive, but $0.5 million a year is spent on promotion and engagement, not including start-up costs. However, the familiar issue of wasteful consumption is one that probably requires national legislation to tackle producer and consumer responsibility at the source end of waste generation.

The National Packaging Covenant has made a start in this direction but perhaps needs to be revised from its current voluntary base in order to make meaningful progress.



2 thoughts on “Zero Waste Initiatives viewed from a capital city’s experience

  1. You’re so interesting! I do not thiink I have read something like this before.
    So wonderful to discover another person with a feew genuine thoughts on this issue.
    Really.. thank you for starting this up. This website is one thing that is
    required on tthe web, someone with some originality!

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