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From its foundation Melbourne was known as a polluted city. Nightsoil and trade waste polluted the Yarra River and other city waterways; smoke from industries such as smelting, as well as from domestic heating, thickened the air; the racket of street musicians, bellringers, steam engines and newspaper boys filled the streets; domestic rubbish, animal carcasses and horse manure clogged the city's lanes and vacant blocks. So great were Melbourne's pollution problems that the city had come to be known as 'Smelbourne'.

Some of the earliest attempts to clean up the city focused on the Yarra River. The Yarra Pollution Act 1855 aimed to prevent further pollution but was not effectively enforced and served only to push the noxious trades further west towards the Maribyrnong River. The Royal Commission to Inquire into and Report upon the Sanitary Condition of Melbourne (1888) also targeted the Yarra, and recommended the establishment of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) and of a sewage farm at Werribee. These developments brought about a major improvement in the quality of Melbourne's waterways.

The late 19th century also saw the beginnings of organised systems for rubbish and garbage disposal. As a result, much of the waste that was once swept into open street channels - from where it made its way to the Yarra River - was sent instead to a municipal tip or one of the makeshift rubbish dumps that were scattered around the city. However, during the 20th century, pollution from motor cars became a major problem. Cars exacerbated the city's air pollution problems and brought a whole new set of unwanted noises: engines, horns and brakes.

In the 1960s there was increasing public concern about the degradation of Melbourne's natural environment. The pollution of Port Phillip Bay produced fish with unsafe levels of mercury and other heavy metals; city smog resulted in poor visibility for pilots approaching Essendon Airport; about 20% of households remained unsewered, and in many areas the groundwater had become contaminated by seepage from landfills. The approach to pollution control was piecemeal: a range of government departments - including the MMBW, the Commission of Public Health and the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission - administered an ever wider range of statutes and by-laws. In 1970 the Bolte government moved to tighten existing anti-pollution legislation and to establish the Environment Protection Authority (EPA), a central body responsible for environmental management in Victoria. Importantly, its primary aim was to prevent - rather than just clean up - pollution.

Also in the 1960s, a Statewide anti-litter campaign led to the passing of the Litter Act 1964 and the creation of the Keep Australia Beautiful Council (Victoria) in 1967. In 1980 the Age newspaper launched its 'Give the Yarra a Go!' campaign, aiming to renew Melburnians' pride in their river. In 1987 a new Litter Act focused on individuals' role in disposing of rubbish responsibly and introduced new penalties for littering. It also broadened the definition of litter to include not just household rubbish, but also 'junk mail'. It was also in the late 1980s that many municipal councils in Melbourne established kerbside glass and aluminium collections and moved to ban backyard incinerators.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there were major reductions in industrial waste and emissions from vehicles. However, the EPA had not solved all of Melbourne's environmental problems. In 1985, for example, there was a series of explosions in a chemical warehouse at Kensington. In August 1991 a blast at a chemical-storage plant on Coode Island caused a fire that burned for two days and sent a cloud of toxic smoke over the city. In the mid-1990s the Yarra River remained polluted by litter, contaminated stormwater and dog faeces, which entered the river via street drains and local creeks. Samples of water taken from Port Phillip Bay can reveal unacceptable E. coli levels. Noise pollution, from building work, traffic and live music venues, has again become a problem as increasing numbers of Melburnians choose to live in the inner city.

Despite these problems - which confront every major city - there have clearly been massive improvements in the quality of Melbourne's water, air and land. In the early 21st century, platypuses have returned to some suburban creeks; lead levels in the air have decreased, and recycling has become a part of most Melburnians' everyday life. No longer can the city be referred to as 'Smelbourne'.

Caitlin Stone

Dunstan, David, 'Dirt and disease', in The outcasts of Melbourne: Essays in social history, pp. 140-71. Details
Unglik, Ari, Between a rock and a hard place: the story of the development of the EPA, Environment Protection Authority, Melbourne, 1996. Details