Select Page

Why I’m cautiously optimistic about waste management in Australia

Published June 23, 2020
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash.

Waste. Rubbish. Bins.

They’re not very sexy words.

And they’ve been super unsexy in Australia in recent years; Compared with some other parts of the world (mostly Europe), our waste management system is pretty dire.

In July 2017, China threw waste management systems around the world into a spin when it announced that it would no longer accept imports of 24 types of solid waste for recycling. This became a talking point for the average Australian because it wasn’t widely known that we were exporting a huge portion of our household waste to China.

Once Australians got over the shock that the majority (about 70 percent) of plastic collected in our country for recycling was being shipped overseas, we were in a position to contemplate the bigger problem at hand:

Because we could just ship our rubbish overseas, we hadn’t developed our own recycling infrastructure to process the mountains of plastic that we typically toss in our yellow bins. This was considered a Major Crisis.

However, I predict that one day very soon historians will talk about that ban as the rebirth of Australia’s next generation waste industry, having sparked a massive shift in government policy and approach.

Read on to learn why…

The rubbish state of recycling in Australia

For a country with such long-running experience with recycling, we’ve sure bungled it right up. A colour-coded bin system (complete with pictures, in some cases) seems like a scheme even a first grader could easily participate in – unless you need to dispose of an envelope with a clear window. If you’re in my local council area of City of Sydney, you can throw that envelope in the yellow bin, which is for plastic, paper and aluminium. Travel 7km down the road to a household in Inner West Council, however, and you’ll need to throw that envelope into the blue bin – for paper and cardboard – if you have one. If you don’t, you can pop it into your yellow bin, because discrepancies in the type of bins a household receives and what goes into which bin aren’t just inter-council, they’re also dependent on what side of the neighbourhood you live.

Confused? So are most Australians.

The discrepancies can be attributed to a waste management industry that has been allowed to sprout fragmented across Australia’s vast land area unfettered by uniform regulations and legislation.

In Australia, local governments (aka your local council) are responsible for managing waste within their local areas according to the rules set by the state or territory government in which they fall.

Managing waste means: “planning for waste management and waste avoidance, minimisation and reuse, licensing and regulation of waste transport, storage, treatment, resource recovery and disposal, and managing the impacts of waste management activities”, according to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.

That’s a fat lot of obligations to meet.

How each local government meets these obligations depends on its access to service providers and ‘resource’ (waste) recovery facilities, which are all mostly privately run, with different technology and systems to process different types of materials.

In other words, councils mostly rely on privately run service providers who all do things a bit differently.

In 2013 there were 806 resource recovery facilities dotted around Australia (Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. 2013). As a result, Australians actually have varying levels of access to kerbside recycling collection for paper and cardboard, metals, glass and plastics, and many regional and remote communities have no collection or recycling at all (DEE 2018).

What does this have to do with China?

That Australia’s waste management system has been allowed to remain so immaturely sporadic for so long is a result of its market context.

Australia has grown a generation of keen recyclers without building a market for recycled material (Cansdale 2019). There is no cost-incentive to use recycled materials; it’s cheaper for manufacturers to use ‘virgin’ (natural, unprocessed, straight from the environment) materials or products made overseas from virgin materials (Kilvert and Smith 2018).

In a capitalist economy, any industry-led system will lag if there is no market incentive to evolve. It has simply been easier and most economically efficient to ship our rubbish off to China, which was willing and capable of processing it.

In the financial year (2016-17) leading up to China’s ban, Australia generated an estimated 67 million tonnes of waste, collected 37million tonnes (55%) for recycling (Pickin et al 2018), and exported 4.23MT for recycling (Blue Environment 2018). Although the portion of exported recyclables were seemingly small, a significant portion – 70% – were plastic materials (Blue Environment 2018).

Plastic is a notoriously difficult material to process because of its many variants. Just 51 per cent of local councils have a kerbside collection service that accepts all seven types of plastic (DEE 2018).

The challenges associated with processing plastic coupled with little market incentive to do so onshore has seen the recovery rate of plastic in Australia woefully low; just 9.4 percent of the 3.4 million tonnes of plastics used in Australia in 2017-18 was recycled, with over half exported for processing (WWF-Australia 2019).

The irresponsible disposal of plastic has devastating impacts on marine habitats (WWF-Australia 2019) – surely there is not a person left in the developed world who hasn’t been exposed to the heartbreaking images of turtles entangled in plastic. For as long as we have been able to ship the problem out of sight, Australia is likely to have remained just as complacent as it has been about its contribution to these terrible environmental outcomes.

Disposing responsibly of plastic ensures this little guy lives a safe and happy life, in a pristine home. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

A shift in Australian policy

China’s plastic ban not only shone a spotlight on the shortfall of recycling infrastructure in Australia, but it also highlighted just how blissfully disconnected Australians have been from the destructive outcomes of their consumption. Whether through sheer ignorance or as a result of corporate gaslighting that began in the 1950s (Sparrow 2018), Australians have dutifully heeded the call to recycle in the misguided belief that they’re doing all they can to save the planet by putting that envelope in the right bin.

The media attention on the plight of recycling in Australia following China’s ban made very visible the ugly reality of waste management in Australia – and it’s a reality very out of line with consumer expectations (Sparrow 2018).

Twelve months after China’s ban took effect, the Australian Coalition of governments (COAG) released the 2018 National Waste Policy. The policy sets the direction for waste management in Australia to 2030, and very explicitly points to changing international markets as a key driver for improving Australia’s domestic resource recovery capacity (Commonwealth of Australia 2018).

Excitingly, the policy introduces a ‘circular economy’ into Australia’s waste policy landscape. The concept is already popular in China and Europe, and it positions waste as a resource for the production of another material or process, thereby reducing a reliance on virgin resources.

Shortly after the 2018 policy document was released, the COAG released the 2019 National Waste Action Plan. The plan sets seven targets:

  1. Ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres, commencing in the second half of 2020
  2. Reduce total waste generated in Australia by 10% per person by 2030
  3. 80% average resource recovery rate from all waste streams following the waste hierarchy by 2030 4. Significantly increase the use of recycled content by governments and industry
  4. Phase out problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2025
  5. Halve the amount of organic waste sent to landfill by 2030
  6. Make comprehensive, economy-wide and timely data publicly available to support better consumer, investment and policy decisions (Commonwealth of Australia 2019).

Consider the 2018 policy and 2019 action plan together, and you have a transformative framework that could see waste management in Australia look very different in just five years, by which time the phase out of unnecessary plastics should have forced innovative alternative products onto the market.

Tough, but not tough enough

In throwing legislative weight behind the banning of rubbish exports and the phase out of problematic plastic, the Australian Government has taken two critical steps in altering the market context to favour an uplift in onshore recycling infrastructure.

However, the Government has so far failed to toe a similarly tough line regarding product stewardship and business procurement, both of which are considered vital by industry experts to spur investment in the infrastructure uplift required to meet the processing shortfalls created by China’s ban (Cansdale 2019, Martin 2020, WMR 2019).

In March, the Government announced that it would rewrite its procurement guidelines “to make sure every procurement undertaken by a Commonwealth agency considers environmental sustainability and use of recycled content as a factor in determining value for money” (Grattan 2020). It’s unclear though whether procurement targets will be mandated, and whether the government will finally mandate business procurement.

The Government is also yet to respond to the industry’s desperate pleas to replace a state-by-state approach to recycling with national regulations, despite a promise to implement a “common approach” contained in the 2018 National Waste Policy. The standardisation of waste regulations also appeared in the 2009 National Waste Policy but failed to be realised in any meaningful way over the last decade.

Change is happening – but it’s so slow

In May 2019, the Federal Government announced $100 million fund to support businesses to take up lower emission manufacturing and produce products made from recycled materials. Sadly, not a cent of it has been spent yet (probably due to coronavirus?). By the end of 2020 though, we should have had some interesting announcements about where that money is going.

Meanwhile, onshore plastic recycling innovation is moving – this company is a great example, it’s successfully trialled technology that turns used plastic into sustainable oil for fuel.

I can’t wait to see what happens next for waste management and recycling in Australia!



Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). 2010. Australia’s Environment: Issues and Trends, Jan 2010. 4613.0. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)

Blue Environment. 2018. Data On Exports Of Recyclables From Australia To China Version 2.

Cansdale, Dominic. 2019. “What’s Changed One Year Since the Start of Our Recycling Crisis?” ABC News Ballarat, January 11, 2019.

Commonwealth of Australia. 2018. 2018 National Waste Policy: Less Waste More Resources. Commonwealth of Australia 2018.

Commonwealth of Australia. 2019. National Waste Policy Action Plan 2019. Commonwealth of Australia.

Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. 2013. Overview – Australia’s waste and resource recovery infrastructure. Australian Government.

Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. n.d. “Policies and Governance for Waste” Australian Government.

Department of the Environment and Energy (DEE). 2018. Analysis of Australia’s Municipal Recycling Infrastructure Capacity.

Grattan, Michelle. 2020. “Morrison Government Will Use Purchasing Power to Encourage Plastics Recycling”. The Conversation. March 2, 2020.

Kilvert, Nick, Carl Smith. 2018. ‘The Demise of Kerbside Recycling?’ ABC News. February 8, 2018.

Liebman, Adam, 2018. “No More of Your Junk.” New Internationalist, December 5, 2018.

Martin, Sarah. 2019. “How Will A Domestic Waste Recycling Industry Work in Australia?” The Guardian. August 14 2019.

Martin, Sarah. 2020. “Scott Morrison To Pledge New Rules and Better Infrastructure to Boost Recycling”. The Guardian. March 2, 2020.

Murray, Alan, Keith Skene, and Kathryn Haynes. 2016. The Circular Economy: An interdisciplinary exploration of the concept and its application in a global context.

Pickin, Joe, Paul Randell, Jenny Trinh, and Bill Grant. 2018. National Waste Report 2018. Department of the Environment and Energy.

Sparrow, Jeff. 2018. “Recycling: How Corporate Australia Played Us for Mugs.” The Guardian. July 19. 2018.

WFM (Waste Management Review). 2019. “Time to Get Australia’s Product Stewardship Back on Track. Waste Management Review.” October 30, 2019.

WWF-Australia. 2019. “The State of Australia’s Recycling – How Did We Get into This Mess?” WWF-Australia.


More about: circular economy

What does ‘plastic neutral’ mean, and is it just a marketing gimmick?

I've been receiving a lot of pitches from companies and PRs lately using the term 'plastic neutral'. It seems to be the new 'carbon-neutral'. Like many sustainability-related phrases and sayings, the term is vague, can be loosely applied and is without regulation. So...

The Three Cs of living in a more sustainable way

Sustainability seems difficult and complex. But when I think about it, there are really just three components. And these three components all support and feed into each other. Cultivate curiosity I write a lot about how in the developed world we’ve become so...