Production and consumption activities occurring in our built environments often lead to increased pollution in our built and natural environments. Pollution can lead to human and ecological health issues associated with the quality of Australia’s land, air and water resources (discussed further in State and trends of the built environment). This section identifies some of the land, air and water pollution issues that can be associated with the built environment.
One large and significant effect of increased consumption (and production) activities is an increase in solid waste generation. Solid waste that is not re-used or recovered largely ends up in managed landfill. Australia has approximately 1168 landfills (DoEE n.d.[b]), which handle approximately 20 million tonnes of waste each year, with 8 per cent of Australia’s landfills (classified as large) accepting 75 per cent of the waste (Pickin 2013). Australia’s National Waste Policy has clear goals to reduce the amount of waste for disposal, and that ‘all wastes, including hazardous wastes, will be managed in a way that is consistent with Australia’s international obligations and for the protection of human health and the environment’ (DoEE n.d.[c]).
Despite increases in population and economic growth, the amount of solid waste being sent to landfill has been decreasing in recent years. Landfills mostly operate under close regulatory control of jurisdictional environmental regulators; they need to be managed for odour, leachate, fire risks, litter and problem wastes (Pickin 2013).
Hazardous wastes are a particular concern because of their potentially harmful effects on humans and the environment, despite their small amounts. They are highly dependent on the level of regulatory control. There are a range of hazardous wastes, with a range of fates (including landfill, recycling, chemical/physical treatment, biodegradation and incineration). Overall, hazardous waste volumes have increased during the past few years—from 4.6 million tonnes in 2010–11 to 5.7 million tonnes in 2013–14. The quantity of hazardous waste is projected to rise to approximately 9.9 million tonnes in 2033–34. This represents an average growth rate of 2.8 per cent per year, compared with a projected average population growth rate of 1.5 per cent, and is equivalent to the long-term projected economic growth rate (Latimer 2015).
Of the total national hazardous waste sources in 2012–13, contaminated soils amounted to 1.4 million tonnes, or more than one-quarter of hazardous waste. Other major contributors were oils (699,160 tonnes), asbestos (640,613 tonnes), grease-trap waste (544,619 tonnes) and tyres (424,557 tonnes). The bulk of contaminated soils and asbestos ends up in landfill (Latimer 2015).
Soil waste generally occurs because of construction and development activities, such as redevelopment of former industrial areas for residential purposes. Contaminated soil wastes reflect a special case in hazardous waste management because site contamination is largely a historical legacy issue. The annual quantities of other hazardous wastes are more directly related to consumption patterns, reflecting current rather than historical activity (Plant et al. 2014).
Plant et al. (2014), in their report Contaminated soil wastes in Australia, assessed that data on contaminated soil waste in Australia are very patchy and of poor quality. Tracking, reporting and auditing processes vary between jurisdictions, but are generally emerging. Many jurisdictions are improving their systems against a backdrop of broader regulatory review.
Lithium-ion batteries are an emerging hazardous waste. Based on conservative estimates, there could be 20 per cent annual growth in these wastes, taking them to more than 136,000 tonnes by 2036. If not appropriately managed, waste lithium-ion batteries pose a fire and explosion risk to all resource recovery and landfill infrastructure (Lewis 2016).