Thought-Provoking Facts About Plastic Recycling in Australia

Did you know that 80% of Australia’s plastic waste ends up in oceans and waterways?

How the public and private sectors are working on solutions and coming up with plans to step up plastic recycling in Australia?

If you’re looking for pollution facts, we’ve put together a collection of compelling statistics about waste and plastic recycling in Australia.

Let’s dig into them!

10 Plastic Waste Facts That Will Blow Your Mind

  1. Australia uses nearly 3.5 million tonnes of plastic annually.
  2. The average Australian throws away 130kg of plastic in one year.
  3. Aussies use one million tonnes of single-use plastic per year.
  4. Australians use over 5 billion single-use HDPE plastic bags a year. 
  5. Australia’s national recycling rate is 12.4%. 
  6. Only 13.1% of plastic waste is recovered.
  7. Households are responsible for nearly half of all plastic waste.
  8. Around 130,000 tonnes of plastics are leaked into the Australian marine environment every year.
  9. Australia recycles only 36% of its PET plastic bottles.
  10. Aussies use approximately 10 million single-use plastic straws a day.

Plastic Waste Statistics

1. Australia uses nearly 3.5 million tonnes of plastic annually.

(Australian Plastics Flows and Fates Study)

According to the latest Plastic Flows and Fates Study prepared for the Department of Agriculture, Water, and the Environment, Australians consumed 3 461 700 tonnes of plastic in the 2019-20 financial year, slightly higher than the 3 435 200 tonnes used in 2018-19.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Aussies used 1.76 million tonnes of plastic. If we compare the numbers then and now, we will see that plastic consumption in Australia has increased by 200% in the last 20 years.

2. 60% of the consumed plastic in Australia is imported.

(Australian Plastics Flows and Fates Study)

The plastic waste statistics in Australia from 2019-2020 show that most of the plastic Australians consume is from imported goods in the form of finished or semi-finished goods. While the remaining 40% comes from domestic manufacturers using virgin or recyclate-based resins.

3. Australia generates around 74.1 million tonnes of waste each year.

(National Waste Report 2020)

As per the latest National Waste Report, released in November 2020, 2.94 tonnes of waste were produced per capita in 2018-19. So, why are these numbers so high, and what is the biggest waste in Australia?

The most significant amount of waste comes from masonry materials (22.9 million tonnes), organic waste (14.3 Mt including 7.6 million tonnes of food waste), and ash (12.5 Mt). Other contributors to solid waste in Australia are

  • 7.8 Mt of hazardous waste
  • 5.9 Mt of paper and cardboard
  • 5.6 Mt of metals.

Find out how you can recycle your mattress and reduce solid waste.

4. The average Australian throws away 130kg of plastic in one year.

(World Wide Fund for Nature)

Plastic pollution in Australia is a serious matter and what’s even more discouraging is the fact that up to 130,000 tonnes of plastic are not correctly disposed of.

5. Aussies use one million tonnes of single-use plastic per year.


Single-use plastic is one of the largest contributors to pollution globally. The biggest problem is that these plastic products are commonly used for a short time and then thrown away.

6. Australians use over 5 billion single-use high-density polyethylene plastic bags a year.

(Australian Plastics Recycling Survey)

How many plastic bags are used each year in Australia? According to the Australia Plastics Recycling Survey, Australians mostly use single-use HDPE bags, around 5.65 billion bags a year, and approximately 1.88 billion single-use produce bags. Only the HDPE bags used in one year add 30,700 tonnes to plastic pollution in Australia.

Did you know that 8.7 single-use bags have enough petroleum energy to power a car for one kilometre?

Recovery Rate of Plastic Waste

7. Australia’s national recycling rate is 12.4%.

(Australian Plastics Flows and Fates Study, Statista)

With so much generated and consumed, how much plastic is recycled in Australia each year? The latest report shows that less than 13% of plastic in the Land Down Under is recycled. Fortunately, these recycling facts in Australia indicate a promising increase in the 2019-20 national recycling rate compared to the 9.4% rate in 2018.

8. Only 13.1% of plastic waste is recovered.

(Australian Plastics Flows and Fates Study)

From 3 461 700 tonnes of plastic pollution in Australia in 2019-20, only 326 600 tonnes of plastics were recovered. The national plastics recovery rate decreased in 2019-20 compared to 15.8% in 2018-19, mainly because 16 000 tonnes of scrap plastics were used for energy recovery.

9. Australia is planning to increase the capacity for plastic reprocessing to 420,000 tonnes by 2025.

(ABC News)

The domestic capacity for plastic reprocessing was set to 227,000 tonnes in the 2020-21 financial year, while the volume planned for 2025 is expected to double these numbers. 

The outstanding achievement in 2020-21 was that two times more soft plastics were collected than in the previous financial year. Most importantly, Australia is focusing on increasing local plastic reprocessing rather than exporting due to strict regulations about exporting plastics.

10. The national plastics recycling rate is the lowest compared to other types of waste.

(Australian Bureau of Statistics)

In contrast to plastic waste, which is sent to landfills in large proportions, Australia has a higher recovery rate when it comes to other types of garbage. For example, 81% of recovered masonry materials are recycled, 76% of metals are either exported or recycled, and 65% of paper and cardboard waste is recovered, according to data as recent as 2018-19.

However, the material with the highest recovery rate in Australia is aluminum, 90% of which is recycled.

Plastic Waste Contributors in Australia

11. Households are responsible for nearly half of all plastic waste.

(Australian Bureau of Statistics)

Where does the plastic come from? Although industry plays a significant role in plastic pollution, the biggest contributors are actually Australian households, with 1.2 million tonnes or 47% of plastic waste. The manufacturing industry was in second place with 380,000 tonnes, i.e. 15% of Australia’s total plastic waste.

12. New South Wales had the highest plastic consumption.


The latest data shows that New South Wales used approximately 1.1 million metric tonnes of plastics, thus holding first place in Australia, ahead of Victoria with 893,000 metric tonnes and Queensland with 689,000 metric tonnes. Conversely, the lowest consumption was recorded in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, with 58,000 and 34,000 metric tonnes, respectively.

Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

13. Around 130,000 tonnes of plastics are leaked into the Australian marine environment every year.

(World Wildlife Fund)

Do you know how much rubbish is dumped in the ocean every year? On a global scale,  eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean, and Australia is responsible for 130,000 tonnes.

On average, every Aussie releases 5kg of plastics into the ocean per year, which is three times more than the global average. If we keep up with this pace, the estimates are there will be more plastic in the oceans by 2050 than fish. Currently, the plastic released in Australian waters is equivalent to 600 million plastic bottles, 7 billion soft plastics or 275 million disposable foodware.

14. Over 14 million microplastics are estimated to pollute the deep ocean.

(CSIRO) (World Economic Forum)

According to the Global Plastic Action Partnership initiative, plastic waste in oceans creates monstrous marine pollution. Larger items degrade over time into microplastics, which end up either sinking to the bottom of the ocean or buoyant in the water.

A 2020 study that probed the deep ocean floor estimated that the quantity of microplastics found in the sediment was 25 times higher than in previous expeditions. Furthermore, this was estimated to be more than double the volume of floating plastic in the ocean.

15. Three-quarters of the debris on the Australian coastline is plastic.


One square kilometre of the Australian coast contains from a few thousand to 40,000 pieces of plastic. Sadly, most of the rubbish is located near urban centres and has domestic roots.

16. Plastic pollution is a confirmed killer of marine animals.

(ABC News)

CSIRO reviewed data from 76 different research papers, attempting to figure out just how many animals die from plastic dumped in the ocean and the Great Barrier Reef. They studied over 1,300 marine animal deaths across 80 species, such as sea turtles, cetaceans, sea lions, seals, seabirds, etc. Flexible items like bags were the worst offenders for animals eating plastic.

Although the full impact of waste on whales remains unknown, one of the many ocean animals examined by CSIRO was a sperm whale, whose autopsy found an alarming 135 different types of lethal plastics in its stomach, primarily single-use plastic bags.

17. A single piece of plastic is enough to kill a turtle.

(The Sydney Morning Herald)

Researchers have found that the chances of a turtle dying after it’s swallowed just one piece of plastic is as high as 22%. Furthermore, the likelihood of a deadly scenario spikes to 50% once a turtle has ingested 14 pieces of plastic in the ocean, while 100 fragments are certain to kill it.

18. The average person might digest around 2,000 pieces of microplastic per week.

(University of Newcastle)

Plastic waste in Australia is harmful to humans. According to a study by the University of Newcastle, people may consume about 5 grams of plastic through their weekly diets, an equivalent to the weight of a payment card. This adds up to 21g a month or over a quarter of a kilo. Bon appétit!

Types of Plastic Debris

19. 35% of all litter found by cleanup volunteers was plastic.

(Clean Up Organization)

Plastic bags statistics show that they comprised 16.6% of the total amount of plastic rubbish collected by Clean Up Australia volunteers. Given how many turtles die from plastic bags, that’s a downright deadly volume.

According to plastic bag statistics in Australia, they’re the biggest and most consumed commercial pollutants on the continent, considered the worst type of plastic waste. This is because plastic bag waste lasts 20 to 1,000 years and travels easily, polluting land, air, and water.

20. Australia recycles only 36% of its PET plastic bottles.

(University of Wollongong, Nationals Plastics Plan)

What percentage of plastics are recycled in Australia? Of the total plastic bottle waste in Australia, just over a third gets recycled. Consequently, approximately 373 million plastic bottles end up in the trash every year. By not recycling PET and HDPE3, Australia is missing the opportunity to add $419 to its economic value.

21. Aussies use approximately 10 million single-use plastic straws a day.

(Sustainability Victoria, Clean Up Organization)

This means that the annual usage of plastic straws in Australia amounts to 3.5 billion. Plastic pollution facts show that straws are the 12th most common item found by cleanup volunteers, accounting for 7.5% of all reported plastics. 

The biggest problem is that straws are generally not accepted by recycling facilities because their small size makes it hard to feed them into the machines, and they can stay on our soil for 600 years.

22. 1.1 million tonnes of plastic packaging is placed on the Australian market.

(APCO Collective Impact Report)

The post-consumer recovery of plastic packaging is 16%, with 179,000 tonnes recovered. Despite the government’s efforts to waste less and recycle more, Australia is far from reaching the 2025 target of having 70% of plastic packaging recycled or composed. With just 16% of plastic packaging recycled and many food delivery services using eco-friendly packaging, we have a long way to go.

23. Cigarette butts represent a fifth of the total collected waste during cleanups.

(Clean Up Organization)

Cigarette butts are one of the most common types of litter, about 7 billion of which are believed to be scattered across Australia annually. They’re made of cellulose acetate, a fibrous plastic material, tar, and other chemicals that take a lot of time to dissolve. They need one year in freshwater and five in saltwater to completely break down, exacerbating ocean pollution.

Plastic vs Other Types of Waste

24. Australia generated 7.4 million tonnes of hazardous waste in a year.

(Hazardous Waste in Australia) 

The hazardous waste in Australia has been increasing by 6.3% a year from 2014-15 to the latest data from 2019-20. Unfortunately, 51% of the 7.4 million tonnes of hazardous waste produced in 2019-20 was dumped in a landfill, 21% was recycled, and only 15% was treated to reduce or remove the hazardous material. Furthermore, 7% was stored for accumulation, and 6% was sent to be reused by another infrastructure.

25. 539,000 tonnes of e-waste is generated Down Under.

(Australian Bureau of Statistics)

E-waste is an up-and-coming type of waste consisting of electrical and electronic equipment, 40% of which is generated by households. Half of the total amount of e-waste is recycled, while the rest is sent to landfills. 

For example, the purchase of smartwatches have reached 830,000 units in the first half of 2019 alone and 1.3 million hearables during the second half of 2020.

In Australia, 98% of your computer or TV components can be recycled. Find out what you can do with an old laptop or an old TV or screen instead of creating additional e-waste.

Plastic Waste Management in Australia

26. The latest valuation of waste services shows that they are a $17 billion industry.

(Australian Bureau of Statistics)

The construction industry was the highest spending, with about $2 billion, while another sector with significant waste management expenditures was manufacturing, with over $1.2 billion a year.
Households were no exception since they’re estimated to have spent $595 million on these services, leaving the agriculture sector in last place with a total of $507 million spent on waste collection.

27. The waste services industry contributed 0.3% of GDP.

(Australian Bureau of Statistics)

Waste management contributed $4.866 million in GVA to the Australian economy in the financial year of 2018-19, meanwhile paying a total compensation of $3.161 million to its 36,000 employees.

28. 126 300 plastic waste from Australia was exported in 2019-20.

(Australian Plastics Flows and Fates Study)

38.7% of the plastic was sent overseas for reprocessing, while 200,300 tonnes or 61.3% was reprocessed in Australia.

29. Victoria is the largest plastic exporter in Australia.

(Exports of Australian waste and recovered materials)

In 2020-21, Victoria exported 59 kt of plastics. Right behind Victoria are New South Wales and Western Australia.

Mixed plastics are the most common when it comes to the type of plastic being exported. Overall, plastic waste from Australia was sent to China until the China ban in 2016-17. Afterwards, the largest plastic export markets were Indonesia and Malaysia.

Plastic Waste in Australia and Reduction Efforts

30. Single-use plastic is set to be banned by 2025.

(The Guardian)

The government has developed a national plan to phase out single-use plastic—everything from disposable cutlery to microbeads in cosmetics—aiming to curb plastic waste in Australia.

31. In early 2021, Queensland became the second state after South Australia to ban single-use plastic.

(The Guardian)

Queensland has passed a law banning  “killer” single-use plastic from September 2021. It’ll prohibit the use of plastic straws, stirrers, cutlery, and plates, as well as polystyrene food containers and cups. However, people with disabilities or health-related needs for these types of items will be exempt. The legislation is expected to incentivize a shift toward plastic alternatives.

32. From 1 July 2022, there are new rules for exporting plastic waste from Australia.

(Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water)

With the country still reeling from the 2018 waste crisis, the government passed the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act, seeking to develop the infrastructure to process recyclables locally. It prohibits the export of unprocessed tyres, glass, paper, and plastic waste from Australia. The goal is to inch closer and closer to a circular economy, enhance product stewardship, and tackle aspects such as the alarming ocean pollution statistics.

The newest regulations require a waste plastic export license, and the plastic should be

  • sorted into single resin or polymer type and further processed, or
  • processed with other materials into processed engineered fuel.

Wrapping It All Up

Given the effects of plastic on oceans, land, wildlife, and humans, a lot needs to be done to address this issue that might make or break our future.

However, it’s evident that plastic waste in Australia is a lot more complicated matter to handle than it might seem at first. Fortunately, both the public and private sectors are continuously working on solutions and coming up with plans to step up plastic recycling in Australia and curb plastic waste. 

We hope that these facts about plastic recycling in Australia have given you the information you need to join their efforts and do your part as a consumer.


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