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This section provides information about waste management and Indigenous environmental health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander environmental health practitioners. At the end of this summary you will find information for specific resources that may relate to your area of interest or expertise.

What is waste?

For the purposes of this outline, waste includes rubbish or solid waste, dangerous goods and liquid waste or sewage. Rubbish is everything people do not want anymore and usually it comes from within their homes. Examples include food scraps, paper, plastic, glass, clothing, disposable nappies, furniture and car bodies. Often rubbish is called solid waste which allows people to tell it apart from liquid waste or sewage. Liquid waste or sewage is a mix of liquid (urine and greywater), faeces, toilet paper and food waste coming from toilets, showers, troughs and sinks. Dangerous goods include, for example, insecticides, medicines, cleaning products and old car batteries.

Why is waste management so important?

If waste is not managed well the health problems for communities can be significant. Food waste attracts pests and vermin which in turn can start and spread diseases. People can cut themselves on broken bottles or tin cans left lying around. Garden waste, discarded furniture and rubbish capable of holding water can also provide a breeding ground for vermin and mosquitoes. Rubbish and food waste can cause diseases including skin infections, tetanus, hepatitis A, Ross River virus and hook and threadworms. If sewage disposal is not properly controlled, or people do not practice good toilet hygiene (washing their hands), diseases including, diarrhoea, gastroenteritis and giardiasis can start and spread quickly to other people within a community. When pesticides, motor oil and other chemicals are illegally dumped and find their way into the water supply, contamination can cause illnesses.

Poor waste management can lead to social and economic problems for communities. Rubbish is often the first thing people notice when they arrive for the first time in a community. Some rubbish is not seen as environmentally hazardous however, it may deter health workers or tradespeople from working in a community if it looks untidy, unsafe, or smells bad. When people get sick from the mismanagement of rubbish and sewage disposal they may have to leave the community to receive treatment leaving behind families to take care of themselves. This can be very stressful and financially costly for the patient and their families.

Why are waste management practices often difficult to maintain in Indigenous communities?

It is often difficult to establish and maintain effective waste management practices in Indigenous communities, especially those in remote areas, for a number of reasons including:

How is rubbish stored, collected and disposed of in Indigenous communities?

It is important to identify the types of rubbish present in a community before deciding upon the right collection, storage and disposal method to put in place. There is also official legislation, rules and guidelines in all state and territories which cover the management of solid waste. These should be checked before commencing any work.

Household rubbish, usually from a kitchen needs to be stored in bins or bags, once full; bags should be tied off and put in outside bins. When disposing of rubbish from a household it is important that all food scraps and disposable nappies are wrapped up before they are put in the bin. It is also important to get the rubbish out of the house so it is ready for collection on a certain day of the week.

Outside bins for houses, stores and community buildings need to:

If the rubbish collection is not working in a community, there is no rubbish tip or the tip is full, communities may need to bury rubbish in their household yards or use a domestic incinerator to burn rubbish. If burying rubbish, the holes need to be very deep to stop dogs or others from digging the rubbish up. It is important to know that plastic should not be burned in an incinerator as it gives off harmful gases which can make people and animals sick. The Aboriginal environmental health workers manual 1997, referenced at the end of this summary (pages 141-144), provides practical information on how to build an incinerator.

The community council together with their staff and environmental health workers are responsible for managing the collection of rubbish. Rubbish can be collected in a number of ways in Indigenous communities and this depends on the location and size of the community. Methods include:

Many matters need to be considered when collecting and transporting rubbish to a tip:

Indigenous communities which use a rubbish tip to dispose of rubbish must consider the following:

Smaller communities (500 or less) may use trenches to manage waste/rubbish disposal. This involves digging holes ready for rubbish with the soil placed at the side of the hole to cover the rubbish once the hole is full. A sign showing the place where rubbish should be dumped is important so that rubbish is not left everywhere. The number of trenches to be dug out and the depth of these trenches will depend on the size of the community and for how long people intend to remain in that location. It is very important that rubbish and sewage are not dumped in the same trench.

What sewage systems are available for Indigenous communities?

The type of sewage system used in communities depends on the:

The environmental health handbook: a practical manual for remote communities (pages 110-111) provides a table of the advantages and disadvantages of the basic systems utilised in Indigenous communities. A number of sewage systems are utilised throughout Australia however those commonly used in Indigenous communities include:

Full centralised sewage systems (deep sewage and gravity sewage)

These systems use a network of pipes to transport water and solid waste straight from the houses to a lagoon on the outer edges of a community where the treatment and disposal of the waste occurs. If the location does not allow gravity to transport the waste, pumps are used. These systems are designed and fitted by contractors who must comply with state and territory legislation.

Effluent (wastewater) disposal system

Septic tanks are located at individual houses which trap the solids in the wastewater leaving the effluent to be piped to lagoons. Sewage and effluent is broken down by germs in the lagoon. If lagoons are not properly maintained they are dangerous for people, and animal's health. Some of the following problems (not a complete list) may indicate that a lagoon is not fully maintained:

Septic tank systems

All the liquid waste produced in houses goes into pipes which carry it to individual septic tanks. The septic tank traps the solid waste and the effluent soaks into the surrounding soil through leach drains. It is important that the soil allows for good soakage. Local authorities within each state and territory have legislation which states how septic tanks are made and sited. Septic tanks should not be located in areas where:

Septic tanks need to be pumped out regularly, between two and five years. Maintenance of septic tanks and leach drains is very important to ensure the safe disposal of sewage.

Pit toilet systems

A pit toilet is where urine and faeces fall into a dug out hole in the ground. They are very good for remote communities where water may be scarce. Pit toilets are located away from houses which may not always be convenient. Vented improved pit (VIP) latrines (toilets) use ventilation to stop flies and odour. When this system is used, greywater from houses is disposed of in other ways. Once the hole is full it must be covered over and the pit toilet moved to another location.

Flushing toilets

Flushing toilets enable the waste to be washed away with water into a septic tank or sewage system. It is very important that flushing toilets are well maintained as broken systems can attract insects which cause disease, and leaking toilets can waste precious water supplies. It is important that the community knows how to use the flushing toilet properly and that they do not place rubbish down the toilet or use it if it is blocked.

No matter what system is in place for the treatment and disposal of sewage it is important that residents have a way of reporting any problems they are having with the system they are using.

How should dangerous goods be managed?

Dangerous goods including insecticides, medicines, cleaning products, oil and old batteries from cars can be harmful for people and community health if not stored, handled or disposed of properly. It is the role of environmental health workers to monitor the disposal of these dangerous goods. It is important for health and safety to store these goods in metal drums in lockable sheds with good ventilation until they can be collected by an authorised person to dispose of them.


It is the role of environmental health practitioners to protect communities from the hazards of ill managed waste disposal and also educate them in ways to improve the practices evident in their community. The rubbish section in the public health bush book mentioned at the end of this summary provides practical ideas for environmental health practitioners working in Indigenous communities.


Menzies School of Health Research (2000) Environmental health handbook: a practical manual for remote communities. Darwin: Menzies School of Health Research

Territory Health Services (2002) The public health bush book. 2nd ed. [Darwin]: Territory Health Services

Government of WA Department of Health (1997) Aboriginal Environmental Health Workers Manual 1997.Retrieved [Access 1997] from

Queensland Health (2008) Waste management,Queensland.Retrieved 2009 from

Centre for Appropriate Technology (2007) Waste management out bush.Retrieved 2009 from

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This product, excluding the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet logo, artwork, and any material owned by a third party or protected by a trademark, has been released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) licence. Excluded material owned by third parties may include, for example, design and layout, images obtained under licence from third parties and signatures.


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