Let’s Talk Rubbish: Cleaning Up Australia’s Construction Wastes

The average Australian generates over 2,000 kilograms of waste each year. Australia is one of the top 10 greenhouse gas emitters in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Although its municipal solid waste production has gone down, it’s still higher than the OECD average.

The waste production in the country increased by 163 per cent in the past two decades and is growing at a faster rate than its economy. The total waste produced rose from 22.7 million tons in 1996-1997 to 43.8 million in 2006-2007.

Because Australia still lacks the infrastructure necessary for proper waste management, its recycling industry relies heavily on sending wastes overseas. In 2016-2017, it sent 1.2 million tons of wastes to China, 30 percent of which are recyclable. So when China stopped accepting wastes in 2018, Australia’s recycling industry struggled.

Impacts of construction wastes

The construction industry accounts for 38 per cent of the total waste generation, which is higher than the contributions of the commercial and industrial sector (33 per cent) and household and municipal sources (29 per cent). Construction and demolition (C&D) wastes include building rubble, earth, concrete, steel, timber and other site clearance materials that come from land excavations, civil and building constructions, demolitions, roadworks and renovations. At least half of this rubbish goes to landfills, most of which are still reusable.

Apart from burdening landfills, the impacts of C&D wastes can be adverse, ranging from degradation of the environment and natural resources, financial burdens on companies and governments and health consequences to humans. The biggest consequence of improper C&D waste management is the soil and water pollution.

Construction material and products, such as diesel and oil, paint, solvents and other debris, are some of the biggest pollutants. These harsh chemicals can seep into the soil and affect its chemical composition, which can harm living organisms.

The surface water run-off from construction sites carries these toxic chemicals and goes into aquifers and other bodies of water. These substances have the potential to cause major consequences to the life of aquatic plants and animals and other species. Construction waste can also run into the groundwater, which is one of the main sources of potable water. Drinking contaminated water can cause severe implications for human health.

Construction soil wasteLand clearing can also lead to soil erosions, causing silt-bearing run-off and sediment pollution. These accumulate in waterways and results in the restriction of sunlight filtration, eventually destroying aquatic ecosystems.

Australia’s efforts to manage construction wastes

Because of the increasing amount of construction refuse and other industrial wastes, Australia is increasing its proper waste management efforts, especially recycling. The first step is to tighten the regulations on the waste disposal of individual corporations and institutions.

Private entities must adopt more sustainable methods and focus on reducing the materials and resources needed in construction. The goal is to lessen the environmental footprint of buildings and decrease the burden on waste disposal. One of the ways they can do this is by reusing and recycling building materials from previous projects.

Construction companies must also implement their own waste management systems to minimize their contribution to the total amount of waste produced by the industry. For example, to reduce the chemical content from the surface run-off in their construction sites, construction companies can adopt an industrial wastewater management solution.

The Western Australian Local Government Association (WALGA) released a Construction Waste Management Plan Guideline for local governments, developers, property owners and builders.

This emphasizes the need to incorporate waste management planning early in the development of a construction project. With the help of the waste management plan, developers and other involved parties should do the following:

  • Minimise the amount of waste produced from the project
  • Maximise the number of materials sent for reuse, recycling or reprocessing
  • Minimise the number of materials sent to landfill

Reducing the amount of waste produced is a duty shared across industries. Although the responsibility of creating better legislation to govern waste management practices falls on the government, corporations must perform their parts in developing more sustainable methods.