Australia used to export rubbish overseas, now it’s hoping to create an economy out of waste

SYDNEY: Take a walk around Sydney’s city centre and chances are, it won’t take long before you find a recycling bin or a product made from recycled material. 

While it may seem insignificant, it is a sign of how Australia’s packaging landscape is changing. 

Up until five years ago, the country had a linear economy for packaging, which basically involved taking raw materials from the earth, using them to make products to sell, and disposing of them once the products reached the end of their life.

According to Australia’s national waste report published in 2018, around 40 per cent of the 54 megatonnes of waste it produced between 2016 and 2017 was sent to the landfill, the equivalent of roughly 880kg per person.

To manage recycling, Australia – like many other developed countries – depended on exporting its waste overseas to countries such as China.

However, the turning point came in 2017, when China announced that it would stop taking in the world’s plastic waste and recyclables.

This created a major headache for waste recovery and recycling companies in Australia and around the globe, with recyclers scrambling to find somewhere to send the waste they collected.

Left with few options, waste recovery and recycling companies were forced to either find alternative buyers in Australia for the recyclables, store the recyclables in a facility until an overseas market could be found, pay levies and transport the waste to landfill, or explore waste-to-energy opportunities.  

Coupled with shifts in consumers’ attitudes towards sustainability, this led to significant changes in the way Australia manages its waste, and a greater push towards a circular economy.