How much waste does Australia generate and where does it go?

By Rachael Ridley  February 22nd, 2023

Amid all the bad news stories we hear in the media, you would be forgiven for believing all our waste, including what goes in the recycling bin, goes straight to landfill. But the latest waste report shows 63% of Australia’s waste is recovered and used again.

Read on to find out what happens to your garbage and recycling, which state is the best at recycling, and who is responsible for generating the most waste.

The National Waste Report, released every two years, provides a snapshot of Australia’s waste generation and management, including who is responsible for the waste and how much of it is recycled. The latest report, released in the final days of 2022, provides new data from financial year 2020-21 and compares it with data from 2006-07 to show trends in recycling and waste management during that time.

Key findings from the report:

  • Recycling is improving – Australia’s recycling rate has increased by 57% over the last 15 years.

  • However, the total quantity of waste we are generating is also increasing with our growing population.

  • Waste generation grew by 20% in the past 15 years. During that time, Australia’s population grew by 25% and GDP by 38%.

  • In 2020-21, Australia generated 75.8 mega tonnes (Mt) of total waste, including 14 Mt from households and local government, 32.8 Mt from the commercial and industrial sector and 29 Mt from construction and demolition.

  • 75.8 Mt of waste is roughly the equivalent weight of 471 Sydney Opera Houses.

  • Australia’s resource recovery rate (recycling, waste reuse, and energy recovery) for 2020-21 was 63% and the recycling rate was 60%. This has not improved since the last report.

  • South Australia outperformed all other states and territories with a resource recovery rate of 80% (the next best was the ACT with 69%).

  • When ash from electricity generation is excluded, in 2020-21 construction and demolition (C&D) contributed the most to Australia’s core waste (45% of the total), however the sector also recovered the most materials (50% of materials recovered in Australia were sourced from C&D).

  • There has been progress against a few of the National Waste Targets, while other targets have seen no improvement or regression.

What is the National Waste Report?

Released every two years, the National Waste Report aggregates data supplied by industry, local governments and other sources to provide a snapshot of Australia’s waste generation and management. It includes data and information on waste generation and recovery across all waste streams and various material categories. The data is used to calculate progress on Australia’s National Waste Targets.

What kinds of waste are included in the report?

The 142-page document focuses on Australia’s core waste – the types of waste generally managed by the resource and recovery sector. That includes:

  • Municipal waste from households and local government operations,

  • Commercial and industrial (C&I) waste from businesses and industry, and

  • Construction and demolition (C&D) waste produced by demolition and building activities.

Waste from mining, mineral processing, agriculture, and fisheries were excluded from the scope of the report. However, it does provide estimates of the amount of waste generated by these sectors, of which mining is the largest overall contributor. In 2020-21, mining produced 620 mega tonnes of waste – 44 times the quantity of municipal waste (14 mega tonnes). Mining waste is mainly made up of a slurry of pulverised rock and water, 96% of which was estimated to have been deposited in tailing dams.

A snapshot of Australia’s waste over the last 15 years

Waste generation in Australia has increased by 20% over the last 15 years. However, in that time, the population grew by 25% and gross domestic product by 38%. A significant increase in C&D waste dwarfed growth in all other areas, increasing by 73% over 15 years compared to +10% from C&I and +8.3% from municipal waste.

Despite these increases, a 3.3% decrease in waste per capita since 2006-07 was reported. The phenomenon of declining waste per capita has been observed in other developed nations including Japan, USA, and Germany. Declining weights do not necessarily correspond to declining volumes, with advances in material science and technology making products smaller, lighter, and more resource efficient a probable cause for the decline. Reduced printed materials due to digitisation is likely also a factor.

Since 2006-07, recycling and recovery of Australia’s core waste has increased by 57%, with the largest increase seen in C&D (+121%), followed by municipal (+22%), and C&I lagging behind (+10%). Unfortunately, waste disposal (landfill and incineration) also increased by 1.9% over the 15 years. C&I had the largest increase of waste disposal (+7.7%), followed by municipal (2.2%), and C&D (0.8%).

A snapshot of Australia’s waste in 2020-21

Impacts of COVID-19

Higher impacts on waste generation during the pandemic were reported in the eastern states, potentially due to different demographics and government responses to testing and isolation requirements. Comparing waste generation patterns in 2020-21 to the pre-pandemic period of 2018-19, municipal waste grew by 11% while waste from C&I declined by 6%. The transfer of waste from businesses to households is attributed to lockdown periods with many people working from home or spending more time at home. There is also evidence of increased kerbside waste disposal (from households) due to increased online shopping and takeaway containers from home-delivered food.

Early in the pandemic, used face masks were identified as a litter issue, however councils have reported this issue largely diminished with face-mask mandates in public spaces ending. Increased litter and illegal dumping in areas that saw increased domestic tourist activity due to restrictions on international travel were also reported.

Most used materials – waste generation vs recycling

In 2020-21, the three largest sources of waste were building and demolition (25.2 mega tonnes), organics (14.4 mega tonnes), and ash from C&I electricity generation (12 mega tonnes). These were followed by 7.4 mega tonnes of hazardous waste (mainly contaminated soil), 5.8 mega tonnes of paper and cardboard, 5.7 mega tonnes of metals, and 2.6 mega tonnes of plastics.

The three largest sources of waste were also the top materials recovered, making up 84% of the total. 20.2 mega tonnes of building and demolition materials, 6.8 mega tonnes of organics, and 6 mega tonnes of ash were recovered through recycling, waste reuse, or energy recovery in 2020-21. This was followed by metals (5 mega tonnes), which has the best recovery rate of all the materials (87% of metals were recycled). 

While plastics represent a very small portion of total waste in Australia (around 3%), only 13% were recycled in 2020-21, with the remainder being sent to landfills (no improvement since 2016-17). This data reflects the weight of plastics, which are lightweight compared to other materials, and does not reflect the volume of plastics used in Australia, nor their associated environmental impacts such as pollution and litter, greenhouse gas emissions, and water usage.

Disaster waste

In 2020–21, 181,000 tonnes of disaster waste were recorded, comprising 86,000 tonnes from NSW (bushfire and flood), 77,300 tonnes from Vic (bushfire), 16,700 tonnes from WA (bushfire) and 940 tonnes from Qld (minor events). This data is incomplete, and the report did not specify the fate of these materials.

Which state has the best recovery rate?

SA was the highest ranked jurisdiction, with a resource recovery rate of 80% (mainly reliant on recycling, but with some energy recovery and waste reuse). Following, in order and with recovery rates in brackets, were the ACT (69%), NSW and Vic (67%), WA (64%), Tas (51%), Qld (47%), and NT (19%). The national trends in recovery and recycling rates are upwards. The Australian resource recovery rate has increased from 50% in 2006–07 to 63% in 2020-21.

Progress against the National Waste Targets

The 2019 National Waste Policy Action Plan, which guides investment and supports policy reform to better manage Australia’s waste and resource recovery, identifies seven targets underpinned by 80 actions, to be delivered collaboratively between governments, industry, and the community.

There has been some progress against a few of the National Waste Targets, while other targets have seen no improvement or regression.

  • Target 1: Ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass, and tyres, commencing in the second half of 2020. Export bans are underway for plastic, glass, and tyres, with restrictions due in July 2024 for paper and cardboard.

  • Target 2: Reduce total waste generated in Australia by 10% per person by 2030. There has been a 3% increase since 2016-17.

  • Target 3: 80% average resource recovery rate from all waste streams following the waste hierarchy by 2030. Estimated increase of 2.2% since 2016-17.

  • Target 4: Significantly increase the use of recycled content by governments and industry. Estimated 15% increase since 2016-17.

  • Target 5: Phase out problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2025.

    • The National Plastics Plan released in 2021.

    • Environment ministers have agreed to ban eight problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic products.

    • Lightweight single-use plastic bags are banned across the country.

    • The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) has released an Action Plan for Problematic and Unnecessary Single-use Plastic Packaging and established the ANZPAC Plastic Pact.

  • Target 7: Halve the amount of organic waste sent to landfill by 2030. Estimated 3% increase since 2016-17.

  • Target 8: Make comprehensive, economy-wide, and timely data publicly available to support better consumer, investment, and policy decisions. The government has released numerous reports and databases since the commitment was made, including creating a national standard for waste resource recovery reporting.

Rachael Ridley

Rachael manages the Business Recycling and Recycling Near You websites. Rachael joined Planet Ark in early 2019 after eight years working in media and publishing as a producer, editor and writer. Rachael loves using her skills in content creation and communication to instigate positive environmental behaviour change. Outside of work, Rachael enjoys spending time in nature, listening to music and patting dogs.

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