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

  • The average Australian throws away 130kg of plastic annually.
  • Australia’s national plastics recycling rate is only 9%.
  • Over 14 million tonnes of microplastics are estimated to be polluting the deep ocean.
  • The average person might be digesting around 2,000 pieces of microplastic per week.
  • Only 19% of plastic waste is recovered.
  • Households are responsible for nearly half of all plastic waste.
  • Australia recycles only 36% of its PET plastic bottles.
  • 1.3 million tonnes of waste was potentially affected by the China ban.
  • Single-use plastic is set to be banned by 2025.
  • Big businesses are also introducing plans to get rid of single-use plastic.

Plastic Waste Statistics

1. Australia produced nearly 76 million tonnes of solid waste in 2018-19.

(Australian Bureau of Statistics)

According to plastic waste statistics in Australia from 2018-2019, the country is responsible for a whopping 75.8 million tonnes of solid waste on an annual basis. What’s more frightening is that this quantity increased by 10% from 2016-2017.

2. The average Australian throws away 130kg of plastic annually.

(World Wide Fund for Nature)

According to the 2020 National Waste Report, Aussies are wasting less and recycling plastic more. Another encouraging fact is that the country’s recycling rate increased by 2% between 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 to reach 60%, despite a growing population and waste volume.

3. Australia’s national plastics recycling rate is only 9%.

(Australian Bureau of Statistics)

If so much of it is thrown away, then how much plastic is recycled in Australia?

Of the 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste produced in Australia in 2018-19, only 227,000 tonnes was recycled, whereas 84% or 2.1 tonnes was sent to landfill.

Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

4. Over 14 million tonnes of microplastics are estimated to be polluting the deep ocean.

(CSIRO) (World Economic Forum)

Do you know how much rubbish is dumped in the ocean every year? According to the Global Plastic Action Partnership initiative, 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enters our oceans every year, creating 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 such expeditions. Furthermore, this was estimated to be more than double the volume of floating plastic in the ocean.

5. 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 offender when it came to 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 a disconcerting 135 different types of lethal plastics in its stomach, mostly single use plastic bags.

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

(The Sydney Morning Herald)

Turtles were among the first species confirmed to be ingesting plastic. In fact, half of them globally are assumed to have some in their bellies. 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.

7. The average person might be digesting around 2,000 pieces of microplastic per week.

(University of Newcastle)

In addition to being a serious threat to marine life, plastic waste in Australia is also severely harming humans. According to a 2019 study by the University of Newcastle, people may be consuming about 5 grams of plastic through their weekly diets, which is the equivalent of the weight of a payment card. This adds up to 21g a month or just over a quarter of a kilo a year. Bon appétit!

Recovery Rate of Plastic Waste

8. Only 19% of plastic waste is recovered.

(Australian Bureau of Statistics) 

Of the total plastic pollution generated in Australia in 2018-2019, less than a fifth was recovered. This was due to the high percentage of plastic waste in Australia either being sent to landfill or exported and recycled elsewhere.

9. 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. 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 aluminium, 90% of which is recycled.

Plastic Waste Contributors in Australia

10. 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 when it comes to plastic pollution, the biggest contributors are actually Australian households, with 1.2 million tonnes or 47% of plastic waste in 2018-2019. The manufacturing industry was in second place with 380,000 tonnes, i.e. 15% of Australia’s total plastic waste.

11. New South Wales had the highest plastic consumption in 2019.


New South Wales used approximately 1.1 million metric tonnes of plastic in 2019, 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.

Types of Plastic Debris

12. 35% of all litter found by cleanup volunteers in 2017 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 in 2017. 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 to be the worst type of plastic waste. This is because plastic bag waste lasts from 20-1,000 years and travels easily, polluting land, air and water.

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

(University of Wollongong)

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.

14. Aussies use approximately 3.5 billion plastic straws per year.

(Clean Up Organization)

This means that the daily usage of plastic straws in Australia amounts to 10 million. Plastic pollution facts show that straws are the 12th most common item found by cleanup volunteers, accounting for 7.5% of all reported plastics.

Most of them are used once for less than half an hour and immediately disposed of. The biggest problem is that they’re generally not accepted by recycling facilities because their small size makes it hard to feed them into the machines.

15. In excess of 5 million tonnes of packaging was used in Australia in 2017-2018.

(Clean Up Organization)

Unfortunately, only half of it was recycled, while the rest ended up in landfills and waterways, according to plastic waste statistics in Australia. This is due to the fact that some packaging is made from more than one material, making certain items extremely hard and expensive to recycle. Furthermore, studies show that there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for recycled products, which only results in more plastic waste.

16. 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 every year. They’re awful for the environment because they’re made of cellulose acetate, a fibrous plastic material, tar and other chemicals, which take an awful 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

17. Aussies produced 15.3 million tonnes of organic waste in 2018-19.

(Australian Bureau of Statistics) (Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment)

A fifth of all waste generated in Australia in 2018-2019 was organic, a 10% increase over a two-year period. 42% or 6.4 million tonnes of it was recycled, while 45% or nearly 7 million tonnes was taken to landfill. Over a third of it (37%) came from food.

While this stat in itself isn’t what’s concerning, the fact that Oz uses 70 billion pieces of soft plastic such as food wrappers a year is, since it contributes significantly to plastic pollution.

18. Australia generated 8 million tonnes of hazardous waste in a year.

(Australian Bureau of Statistics)

In 2018-19, Aussies generated a total of 8 million tonnes of hazardous waste, a 2% increase over the previous report. 4.6 million tonnes or 58% of the total hazardous waste was dumped in landfills, whereas only 24% (1.9 million tonnes) was sent to recycling. Old tyres comprised 6% of the total.

19. 539,000 tonnes of e-waste was generated Down Under in 2018-2019.

(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 in Australia is recycled, while the rest is sent to landfills. While that’s a far higher rate than that of recycling plastic, the amount of devices we’re using nowadays nevertheless adds up to concerning quantities of waste.

As an example, the purchase of smartwatches has reached 830,000 units for the first half of 2019 alone and 1.3 million hearables during the second half of 2020.

Plastic Waste Management in Australia

20. In 2018-2019, waste services were valued at nearly $17 billion per year.

(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, in the financial year of 2018-2019, 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.

21. The waste services industry contributed 0.3% of GDP in 2018-2019.

(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.

22. The amount of exported plastic waste from Australia in 2019 increased by 2%.

(Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment)

In June 2019, Australia exported 473,000 tonnes of waste-derived materials, valued at $272 million. This was 41% more than the previous month and 10% higher in value. The key destinations were Bangladesh, Vietnam and Malaysia.

The largest increase was in scrap metal exports with 53%, followed by hazardous waste with 10%, paper and cardboard with 7%, and plastic waste with 2%.

23. In 2018-19, the country imported 70,700 tonnes of non-hazardous scrap materials.

(Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment)

According to plastic waste statistics in Australia, 17% of the significant amount of waste the country imported in 2018-2019 was plastic. The rest was 50% metals, 12% glass, 10% paper and cardboard materials, 8% tyres, and 4% textiles. 

24. 1.3 million tonnes of waste was potentially affected by the China ban.

(ABC News)

After revisions, the amount of refuse affected by China’s ban on waste imports was increased from the 619,000 tonnes initially predicted in 2018 to about double that amount in 2019. The restrictions imposed by China covered 24 different types of recyclables, such as plastic waste from Australia.

Plastic Waste in Australia and Reduction Efforts

25. 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. However, conservationists warn that in order for it to be successful, it must impose stringent regulations on industry. 

26. 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. Just in 2019, the use of BYO cups at coffee shops went up a whopping 292%.

However, people with disabilities or health-related needs for these types of items will be exempt. The legislation is expected to incentivise a shift toward plastic alternatives.

27. The federal parliament banned unprocessed waste exports in late 2020.

(The Conversation)

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.

28. Australian supermarkets have also been wondering how to reduce plastic pollution.

(Water Logic Australia) (National Retail Association)

In July 2018, supermarket franchises like Woolworths’ and Coles banned single use plastic bags in their stores across Australia. Their policies now include shoppers buying a thicker, reusable bag or bringing one from home.

The move is estimated to have stopped 1.5 billion bags from being used by the end of 2018 alone, a welcome reduction of over 80%, given how many plastic bags are used in Australia each year—namely, 3.9 billion were being discarded before the campaign was launched.

However, this isn’t everything Woolworths’ has been doing. In 2018, it also stopped selling plastic straws, a decision projected to lead to 134 million fewer of them sold.

29. Big businesses are also introducing plans to get rid of single use plastic.

(Nestle Australia) (News Australia)

Reading all of these plastic pollution statistics might make you feel despondent, but companies like Cadbury are making concentrated efforts to tackle it.

For example, Nestle has announced that it’s working on a plan to stop plastics from ending up in landfills. To hit this target, it’s committed to making 100% of its packaging recyclable and reusable by 2025.

In March 2020, fast-food giant McDonald’s also announced that it was doing away with plastic straws and developing an Australia-wide plan to ditch single use plastic cutlery by the year’s end, effectively removing 860 tonnes of plastic from its restaurants.

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.

We hope that these statistics on plastic recycling in Australia have given you the information you need to join their efforts and do your part as a consumer. After all, nobody wants to be dodging plastic bottles in the ocean when out for a swim, right?


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