Analysis of Australia’s municipal recycling infrastructure capacity

Report published on October 2018 by the Australian Government Department of Environment and Energy

In 2016–17, Australia generated 67 million tonnes (Mt) of waste per year, sending 55 per cent (37 Mt) to recycling, three per cent to energy recovery (2 Mt) and 40 per cent (27 Mt) to disposal. Municipal waste (from households and council operations) makes up about 21 per cent of Australia’s annual waste generation and 17 per cent of national recycling.

In 2017, China announced restrictions on imports of recycled materials. The restrictions, which took effect on 31 December 2017 and 1 March 2018, forbid the importation of 24 waste types and placed strict contamination limits on others—0.5 per cent for materials such as paper, cardboard and plastics and one per cent for metals.

Australia is one of more than 100 countries impacted by China’s waste import restrictions. Australia’s municipal-waste streams have been particularly affected. At the time China’s restrictions were announced, Australia exported about 1.3 million tonnes of recycled material to China. This accounted for four per cent of Australia’s recyclable waste, but 35 per cent of our recyclable plastics and 30 per cent of recyclable paper and cardboard. Approximately 25 per cent of Australia’s recycling involves paper and cardboard, plastics, metals and packaging glass. These waste streams make up the vast majority of the kerbside recycling bin. Global changes in waste markets have drawn attention to the capacity of our domestic waste management infrastructure to collect and process recycled materials from the kerbside.

This report summarises targeted assessments of flows of recycled materials from municipal sources through collection and recycling infrastructure. Focus is given to materials particularly relevant to municipal kerbside collections: paper and cardboard, plastics, metals and packaging glass. This report presents preliminary analysis of the capacity of Australia municipal waste and collection infrastructure by Australian LGAs, and it outlines a review of contemporary international flows of Australian waste following announcement of China’s import restrictions.

Key facts:

  • Most Australians have access to municipal waste management and recycling, but kerbside municipal waste collection and recycling services are not available to most communities in remote and regional Australia.
  • Australia’s recycling infrastructure is generally capable of managing current volumes of waste but most collection and recycling services have limited capacity to process certain types of recyclable waste. For example:
    • Only 10 Local Government Areas (LGAs) have municipal kerbside collections that can accept all types of recyclable plastic and plastic bags
    • 58 per cent of Australian households have no access to kerbside collection of organic materials.
  • Compacting of co-mingled municipal waste by collectors is leading to greater levels of contamination in recycled materials.
  • Most of Australia’s materials recovery facilities lack technical capacity to sort co-mingled, highly-contaminated municipal waste into many specific material types that have low levels of contamination.
  • Large volumes of recycled materials end up in landfill due to contamination.
  • Since China introduced restrictions on waste imports in 2017, Australia’s exports of recycled material to China have fallen but Australia’s exports of recycled materials have increased overall during 2018.
  • Some large businesses have been able to respond to new international waste market restrictions, but most collection and recycling operators in Australia remain vulnerable to changing international waste markets.
  • Improvements in access to municipal collection and recycling services across Australia will improve waste management – particularly in regional and remote areas – and increase Australia’s recycling rates generally.
  • Improvements to the technical capacity of existing municipal collection and recycling services will better enable dealing with contamination in recycled materials, lifting recovery rates and aiding access to markets for all recycled materials.


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