Wasted opportunities a thing of the past

Published: 10 August 2022
Black and white photo of Carlton Gardens in Melbourne Melbourne’s Carlton Gardens was a popular dumping ground for household rubbish and ‘nightsoil’ in the late 19th century. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

We may see the value in waste today, but we didn’t always understand the endless opportunities in recycling.

Recycling is not a modern concept.

It’s believed that in 3000 BC, people in western Asia were melting metal to create new objects and that in 1031, Japan made recycled paper after the government decreed that all wastepaper be collected and re-pulped.

When it comes to waste and recycling, humans have always demonstrated they can be creative. The solutions are there, they just need the innovation and investment to make them a reality.

The history of waste and recycling in Victoria tells a story of the times: what we’re willing to throw away and how we do it, or what we value and treasure to be reused again and again, reflects the needs of the day.

Recycling and hygiene are hardly synonymous, but public health issues are often the driving force behind waste policy and collection services.

In the 19th century, Melbourne was considered the world’s dirtiest city. ‘Smellbourne’, unable to keep pace with sudden population growth after the gold rush, had no regulations for waste disposal from private premises by the 1860s. The city’s excrement, or ‘night soil’, was collected in cesspits at the back of people’s properties, often overflowing into public laneways or dumped in the Yarra River or public parks.

By the 1870s, disease and infection were rampant. Typhoid and diphtheria were common. Public outcry for sanitary and waste reform gained momentum, and in May 1892 construction began on Melbourne’s first underground sewerage system. These early waste collection services were driven by the need to make cities healthy and safe.

Black and white photo of children in Swan Hill hospital, 1913. Children being treated for diphtheria at the Swan Hill Hospital, 1913. Photo by George Hamilton. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

Reuse and repair were essential from early colonisation, with limited local manufacturing capacity and products mainly produced overseas. Councils appointed ‘Inspectors of Nuisance’ to manage waste issues, and some early recycling programs were introduced, like rag and bone household collections where rags were made into paper, while bones were used to make fertiliser, soap, glue and gelatine (pdf, 1.5MB).

Councils started operating incinerator sites, aptly known as ‘destructors’. Alongside landfills, located in the city’s then outskirts on cheap land, destructors became operational from 1890.

Personal backyard versions soon caught on. Concrete block incinerators were as common in the Australian backyard as the Hills Hoist up until the 1980s. The weekly burn, where families would incinerate items that would usually be recycled today, turned waste into black, toxic fumes, floating above our suburbs, and ruining laundry day.

Black and white photo of a man with his backyard incinerator, 1954. The weekly burn. A man with his backyard incinerator, 1954. Photo by Mark Strizic. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

Household wastepaper collections in Melbourne started shortly after in the 1920s, although linen and cotton rags were used to make paper as early as 1815.

Recycling efforts peaked during the strain of The Great Depression and World Wars. Commodities were scarce and production was directed toward the war effort. Scrap metal was in hot demand. From car parts, pots and pans, metal toys, and scrap iron in farm equipment – any metal was considered highly valuable and could be recycled into equipment to help fight the war.

Poster with text: Save your scrap for the Big Scrap. You can help by saving metals for munitions. Poster encouraging civilians to donate scrap metals to the war effort, 1940. Cochrane, artist. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

The need for action on recycling and waste reduction entered the public consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, prompted by a growing population, rising consumerism and the introduction of single-use and disposable containers, partnered with increasing concerns over the environmental and health impacts of landfill and incineration.

Glass manufacturers started collecting old bottles from the public in the late 1960s, and by the 1970s, Comalco and Alcoa started recycling aluminium. In 1972, the UN General Assembly designated 5 June as World Environment Day, giving environmentalism a global platform. Recycling collection and reprocessing facilities began to emerge as viable industries.

Kerbside collection was introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, with campaigns encouraging households to reconsider their waste, separating valuable materials like glass, aluminium and paper. Plastics, steel cans and liquid-paperboard milk cartons followed. The wheelie bin was also (literally) rolled out in the 1980s.

Recycling hit TV screens at this time, with big advertising campaigns and stars pitching in to reframe the nation’s attitude towards recycling. Who could forget Pete Repeat (his name’s on his feet) and tennis ace Pat Cash for Comalco’s ‘Cash for Cans’ campaign?

Image of Pat Cash in ad for Cash for Cans, 1989. Pat Cash in Comalco’s ‘Cash for Cans’ advertising campaign, 1989.

Today, Victoria’s waste and resource recovery capacity is a sophisticated industry with an annual turnover of $4 billion, providing 12,000 full-time equivalent jobs (pdf, 248kB).

Attitudes toward waste have also evolved, as we transition our state to a circular economy. In this transformative system of using waste to its maximum potential, we don’t call it ‘waste’ at all.

Instead, in a circular economy, all materials are valuable: things are made, used and repaired, then recycled into new products again – continuously circulating through the supply chain.

In Australia, we still waste more than $324 million of resources each year that could be used productively by the manufacturing, construction and agricultural sectors, both here and around the globe. By shifting to a circular economy, Victoria will recover at least 80% of its waste by 2030.

At Sustainability Victoria, we’re finding new and unusual ways to keep valuable materials in production by investing in infrastructure, research and development to extend the life of products, accelerating the circular economy transition.

In 2021–22, we aimed to fund and install projects to recover and process 300,000 tonnes of recycled material.

We are on track to more than double it.


Second nature: Recycling in Australia, Planet Ark, 2012.

Melbourne and Smellbourne, Culture Victoria.

A review of issues relating to the disposal of urban waste in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide : an environmental history, Philip H. Nicholls, 2002.

History Of Recycling – World And Australia, Ian Guenn Tayao, 2017.

When we burned ANYTHING we didn't want, Stephen Gibbs, Daily Mail Australia, 28 April 2020.

On the road: The nightman, Old Treasury Building.

Development of Melbourne's Sewerage System (pdf, 5.3MB), Melbourne Water. Retrieved 8 August 2022.

Willis, I., ‘Camden’s salvage campaign, 1939-45’, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, Issue 38, 2003.

Taylor, E., '“Tipped off”: Residential amenity and the changing distribution of household waste disposal in Melbourne’ (pdf, 555kB), State of Australian Cities Conference, 2013.

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