How to make Australia a Recycling Nation

A Boomerang Alliance Backgrounder.

We produce too much waste and do too little recycling in Australia. A National Recycling Industry Development Program would reduce waste and litter; boost the economy and create jobs across the nation.

In 2017 China introduced its China Sword Policy which limited imports of recyclable materials, unless they met certain contamination standards. In the case of mixed plastics that was 0.5% contamination or less.  Up to that point the import of mixed recyclable products had been a major trade for China with an estimated 45 million tonnes imported (2016) from America, Europe and countries like Australia.  Now other Asian nations are restricting waste imports.

Note: This total includes ALL products imported for ‘recycling’. Recovered products such as paper and plastics from recycling kerbside collections are included.

Our proposals are focused on products recovered through yellow top bin collection services. These are the products that are contaminated (and supposedly allocated for recycling) and creating most angst for local government, the recycling sector and the public.  We exclude drink containers collected via a separate system with container deposit schemes which produce a clean stream and are acceptable to the market.


Collected Recyclables Exported

Until recently Australian collectors had been exporting mixed recyclable materials to Asian countries, notably China. That export meant that, of materials collected for recycling, about 60% of mixed paper and 20% of mixed plastics were exported[1]. This equates to about 1 million tonnes of paper and 160,000 tonnes of plastics.

The banning of contaminated recyclable imports, has created a ‘recycling crisis’ in Australia, particularly for unsorted mixed plastics. Collected plastics from kerbside need to be ‘clean’ for export or have a domestic market. In the absence of this, they will now have to be stockpiled until a market is established. In addition the extra supply and loss of demand has seen the prices of the materials drop, worsening the financial pressures on collectors.

Long term stockpiling is not a solution for the industry and, as a result, there is increasing pressure on governments to allow other options, such as putting excess plastics into landfill or allow them to be incinerated (with the justification that some energy is recovered). Both of these options represent a backward step away from the goal of a circular economy.

Neither of these options have broad public support. The public want to see the products they put into their yellow top bin actually reused or recycled. The preferred solution of government, the waste sector and the community,  should be to expand the domestic recycling industry to meet that public’s expectations that materials put into the recycling bin will be recycled.


The Political Debate

At the last Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in August 2019 a decision was made to set a date to stop exports of glass, paper, metals and used tyres, with a ban being coupled with investment in a domestic recycling industry and the introduction of procurement policies (starting with government purchasing) to create demand for products with recycled content.

The next Meeting of Environment Ministers (MEM) will take place on 8 November in Adelaide and has been tasked to decide upon a national recycling action plan that confirm the date for the export ban (currently aiming for the second half of 2020); the investment in domestic recycling; and plans for government procurement, as well as other issues such as problematic single use plastics.

In  Boomerang’s view, the MEM is the critical opportunity to set in train a better future for recycling in Australia. Importantly environmental groups and the waste and recycling industries are in broad agreement on what needs to be done. It's time for the Commonwealth and state and territory jurisdictions to act.


About Recycling

Australian households put approximately (by weight) 2.5 million tonnes of discarded products into their yellow top recycling bins every year. On average this comprises 50% paper products, 30% glass, 7% mixed plastics and 3% metal/aluminium. The average contamination rate of yellow bins (of non-eligible recyclable materials) is between 8-10%.[2]

When collected the recyclable products are transported to one of over 100 Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) in Australia. The purpose of the MRF is to separate the materials and on-sell these to commodity markets. These markets can be in Australia or overseas.

There are many different types of MRFs from ones that simply separate materials into basic streams - paper, glass, plastics or metals/aluminium to more sophisticated models with optical readers that can separate glass into different sections (colours/types), different plastics (HDPE, PET etc) and different paper products (cardboard, newsprint, liquid paper board etc). There has been an ongoing problem with glass shards contaminating paper and cardboard. The greater the separation of products the more acceptable to the on-sell markets. Properly separated products that meet market requirements from MRFs have retained their demand in secondary markets.

Estimates suggest about 30% of collected glass is recycled, being ground into fines (sand) for use in road base, asphalt or concrete. The figure in NSW is 45%, with lower totals elsewhere[3]. The remainder is either stockpiled or destination unknown.

Plastics, particularly when properly separated into type have a ready market. It is usually flaked or pelletised for reuse, here or overseas. Mixed plastics, on the other hand, pose a recycling problem due to differing plastics types and polymers. Recycling these mixed plastics is expensive. These are the bundled plastics that have usually been sent overseas and have include other contaminating materials.

Recycled paper products, either as fibre or pulp, have value and available markets (although the cardboard market has lost value).

Most of the revenue from MRFs, apart from gate fees, comes from on-selling paper (50%), plastics (7%) and metals (3%).[4] Collected containers from CDS that are received through kerbside collections at MRFs are also a major source of new income derived from the refund value.


Moving Forward

The Australian Councils of Recyclers (ACOR) and the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association (WMRR) have put forward proposals to establish a better recycling industry.  They promote  investment, procurement, market development and innovation.



With an estimated $150mill injection from government matched by the private sector, Australia could address its immediate problems and set up a sustainable recycling industry[5]. This includes:

  • $28 M to provide standardised bins for every household with an education program and national database
  • Upgrade sorting centres $33M to improve sorting and create better quality commodities
  • $57 m to develop more paper pulp and plastic pellets production
  • $32 M for innovation and increased use recycled materials



Government needs to lead and can effectively get the ball rolling by initiating procurement policies and practices. The obvious big ticket items would be for road base and major infrastructure. Setting policies and introducing standards for the use of recycled glass, tyres, wood and plastics has been on the cards for many years, but many jurisdictions have been very slow to initiate and promote further government procurement opportunities.

Governments can also encourage private sector recycled content procurement through tax incentives and penalties.

An essential component of this push is recycled content standards.  For example packaging will have a target above 30%; and road base will also need a desired technical requirement.



All jurisdictions have endorsed a target of having all plastic packaging reusable, compostable or recyclable by 2025. There is no reason why this target could not be expanded to other collected materials from the yellow top bin. There should be no glass, metals or plastics (non-packaging) wasted. All could and should be reused or recycled, with excessive and unnecessary materials avoided in the first place.

Whilst much focus is put on recycling and this is important, avoiding and reducing materials is too often overlooked. We need to innovate and put more focus on avoidance, reduction and reuse.

The Commonwealth have promised a $20mill recycling innovation fund and most state jurisdictions have funds for innovation. It is important that these are directed to towards avoiding, reducing and reusing materials, as well as recycling them.


What Boomerang Wants

We support better and more recycling based on growing the domestic market and processing facilities. We oppose the export of mixed recyclables to overseas countries, particularly when the circumstances involved that recycling is dubious on both human health and environmental grounds.

Additionally, our focus is on single use plastics and we think it essential that any policies and investment that are introduced to improve plastic resource recovery needs to include measures that will avoid and reduce the problems in the first place.

In addition to recycling we support:

  1. A national Plastic Bag Ban and Container Deposit Scheme in each State.
  2. An expanded Container Deposit Scheme in all states and Territories to include wine and spirit containers; encourage recycling by requiring that all collected containers include recycled content; and consider an increase to the deposit on containers to 20 cents by 2023. We also support the collection of refillable glass beverage containers in a CDS collection scheme
  3. A Product Stewardship Scheme for Packaging (or mandated regulations) that will set rules for all packaging to be produced with minimised material use, toxicity and designed to be easily and economically reused or recycled.
  4. A national phase-out of thick (department store style) plastic bags (<70 microns as has been put in place in New Zealand) with a phase-out date (2021) and be mandatory in all jurisdictions.
  5. A phase-out of single use (non-compostable) takeaway packaging. This to include coffee cups/lids, straws, cups and containers, cutlery, bags and plastic bottles, with a proposed phase-out date of 2021.


Information in this paper is taken from public documents published by Australian Council of Recyclers (ACOR), the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association (WMRR) and Mike Ritchie and Associates (MRA).

Information is also taken from Boomerang Alliance public documents


[1] National Waste Report 2018

[2] National Waste Report 2018

[3] The Tipping Point article 2019-MRA Consulting

[4] The Tipping Point article 2019-MRA Consulting

[5] ACOR-Recycling Industry Investment Strategy