Few residents around Australia have witnessed as brazen an effort to dump asbestos illegally than those living in the outer north-west Sydney suburb of Blaxlands Ridge.

One of the suburb’s local roads was closed for four days late last year ago following the discovery of a truckload of asbestos which had literally been tipped out onto the middle of the bitumen.

Sadly, however, this is not an isolated incident. On the other side of Sydney, the local council in Camden reckons it had been forced to clean up no less than 40 tonnes of asbestos material over a 12-month period, according to a Sydney Morning Herald report last October. According to that report, the outer fringes in that city were essentially serving as a ‘dumping ground’ for asbestos waste as unscrupulous builders and home renovators sought to avoid the time and costs associated with legal disposal methods. There are increasing reports of illegal landfill being dumped on properties of residents after they responded to advertisements for free ‘clean fill’.

Indeed, the scale of the problem was laid out in a research report published by the New South Wales Environmental Protection Agency last year. According to that report, more than one in 10 local governments spent more than half a million dollars per year or more on activities relating to the prevention, monitoring and enforcement of illegal dumping. Eight per cent of the incidents identified through these measures were found to involve the illegal dumping of asbestos.

The problem is not confined to New South Wales. In a recent incident in Queensland, for example, demolition waste dumped on a private property close to the Riverview State School near Ipswich was found to contain asbestos. In Victoria, recent media reports suggest that the material has been found dumped on roadsides, in parks, in bushland and even on beaches. In South Australia, the problem of illegal dumping, including waste containing asbestos, is so bad that the government is considering proposals to crush the vehicles of those who are caught.

So what lies behind the problem? And what can be done?

Broadly speaking, activity relating to the dumping of asbestos or asbestos containing materials falls into two categories: smaller dumps undertaken by households and larger dumps from commercial operations – with many of the latter involving material which has been wrapped correctly but simply not taken to the correct location.

According to a review undertaken by the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, primary motivations for dumping asbestos-containing materials revolve around the cost and accessibility of legal disposal options, the time taken to travel to potentially distant sites, and apathy or a perception that dealing with materials containing asbestos is difficult. According to that report, potential solutions include increasing the availability of local disposal facilities, beefing up penalties for those caught, reducing the cost of legal disposal, better information about how and where to dispose of asbestos legally and a campaigns to raise awareness of the problem amongst younger generations.

Michael Shepherd, president of the Queensland-based Asbestos Industry Association says critical underlying factors regarding dumping revolve around cost, knowledge and accessibility to landfill.

Speaking of the Queensland situation in particular, Shepherd says few councils in Brisbane accept asbestos waste and those needing to dispose of it are generally forced to take it to Ipswich, adding to the time and cost associated with correct disposal. A lack of clear information about the process and what needs to be done means many homeowners get bounced around government departments over the phone as they try to find out what they need to do.

Add to that the cost associated with hiring a licensed contractor and paying potentially thousands of dollars in order to dispose of it legally, and the temptation to do things like hide it in the bottom in the regular waste or dump it on a vacant lot and hope council picks it up becomes clear. A not uncommon phenomenon is for homeowners to attempt to hide the material underneath green mulch – a practice which has been known to result in asbestos being found in local parks as much of the mulch is recycled.

For smaller tradespeople, too, the time and cost associated with dealing with asbestos on jobs can be significant – a phenomenon which tempts many to try disposing of it in their other waste at regular landfill spots, some of which gets recycled as concrete aggregates and ends up in gardens.

“It’s the cost and accessibility and people not knowing what to do with it,” Shepherd said.

He added that there needs to be clear and accessible information about what needs to be done about asbestos and where it needs to be taken. Such information should also give an idea about what homeowners should budget for in terms of handling and disposal costs. Otherwise, those performing renovations on bathrooms, for example, may find themselves being hit with a cost for which they had not allowed in their budget – adding to the temptation of simply dumping it illegally.

He would also like to see councils accept small quantities of asbestos waste – on the proviso that it is wrapped properly – and could provide skip bins for this. While Shepherd by no means wants to encourage anyone who is not licenced with regard to asbestos handling and removal to attempt to dispose of the material themselves, he says it is important to acknowledge that the practice does happen and to provide for this.

In New South Wales, meanwhile, Asbestos Removal Contractors Association president Brett Baker expresses similar sentiments, but says an additional problem in his state revolves around a new Waste Locate program brought in recently by the Environmental Protection Agency. He says the program is not only complex to use but indeed contains loopholes.

In particular, because the program does not combine with a Safe Work NSW program through which contractors advise the safety agency of their intent to perform work, it would be possible for contractors to get away with environmental dumping by notifying Safe Work but not the EPA.

Were the two systems to be combined, he said, those who notify Safe Work of their intention to perform work would also have no opportunity not to also notify the EPA. They would therefore be held accountable for the waste disposed of with regard to the particular job in question. Baker would also like to see costs reduced through a reduction in the waste levy as well as stiffer penalties for those who are caught.

Shepherd, meanwhile, would like greater efforts to raise awareness on home renovation shows.

“You have these…DIY shows that you see on television – very rarely do they mention asbestos,” he said.

“They are all pre-1990 buildings they are renovating and they could have some asbestos. I think there needs to be some responsibility and accountability from those people to create a bit of awareness. Even if they are not coming across asbestos on their particular project, you could say ‘guys, you just need to be aware of this and if there was asbestos, this is what you need to do.’

“It might be an extra one minute on their show. They need to take some responsibility and accountability for getting the message across.”