The Ups and Downs of Recycling in Australia and New Zealand

Posted by Tanya Gough on Monday, November 14, 2016 10:00 AM
Tanya Gough

Much has been said about recycling statistics and practices in North America and Europe, but what’s going on Down Under?

Australia and New Zealand each face unique challenges when it comes to recycling, and as it turns out, they could not be more different when it comes to implementation.

Both Australia and New Zealand are young countries compared to the West: the first European colony at Botany Bay wasn’t even settled until 1788, a full 12 years after the USA declared independence, and New Zealand developed as an autonomous trading partner until it joined the British Empire in 1840.  The recycling efforts in both countries are also relatively new.


Due to the long distances between settlements and rough terrain, Australia understood the value of recycling early in its path toward modernization.  Recycling made its debut in 1815 in the form of a paper mill that used old rags and cloth as a base material. Household waste paper collection began in Melbourne in the 1920s and was widespread by the 1940s [Source: Planet Ark].

More recently, Australia has taken significant steps to moderate and manage waste production and recycling. Some of their initiatives include the 1999 National Packaging Covenant, which makes everyone in the packaging supply line responsible for reducing waste by using less packaging and more recyclable materials.


[Source: Planet Aid]

The National Waste Policy, the National Environment Protection Measures and the Product Stewardship Act of 2011 together form another layer of legislated controls which impose significant levies on landfill use, provide recycling education and processing services, and ensure that importers, producers and resellers of goods play their part and contribute to the re-collection and recycling of the goods they sell [Source: Australian Government].

These initiatives have not been wasted.  Overall, Australia’s recycling rate has risen from 44% of all waste generated in 2008 [Source: Australian Government] to 58% in February 2016 [Source: MRA Consulting].  It’s not all good news, however. A rapidly growing and modernizing population means more consumption and an overall 170% increase in waste generation, which means landfill rates are still on the rise.

Nevertheless, strong education and service provisions have worked to reduce the amount of waste being sent to landfill in some areas, and the Australian government continues to press for better results, in spite of the long distances between urban areas and the difficulty servicing the many remote regions which define this rugged land.

New Zealand

Whatever challenges Australia faces with its difficult landscape and sparse population are compounded in New Zealand by several factors. With a population of only 4.4 million spread across an island roughly the size of the United Kingdom, recycling is hampered by difficult economic, geographic and practical realities.  For example, plastics recycling in New Zealand usually means that bulk raw materials need to be shipped overseas for processing, which ultimately makes recycling too expensive to sustain businesses. And New Zealand simply does not generate enough plastic to offset the costs with bulk volumes or to justify building local infrastructure to reprocess materials within the country.

Unfortunately, this lack of sustainable infrastructure means that reusable materials that are too expensive to recycle are ending up in the landfill, which continues to grow at an alarming rate. In Aukland alone, the amount of waste sent to landfill is projected to double within the next 10 years [Source:].

New Zealanders are also among the top waste producers in the world, generating 3.68 kg of waste per person per day, more than double the global average of 1.2 kg, and placing it at the top of the list of developed countries [Source: World Economic Forum].  It’s not difficult to see how runaway landfill use policies may have devastating effects on the New Zealand environment in the near future.

Next Steps

The way forward in both countries clearly hinges on recycling education, combined with improved services to remote areas. The increased waste that comes with rapid growth rates in Australia can be offset, and the government at both the national and regional level appear committed to making that happen. For Australian residents, solid recycling practices start with reliable kerbside pickup in cities and accessible drop-off points elsewhere.  Municipal governments should also be looking to improve access to information about what can and can’t be recycled – a recent Planet Ark report shows that 48% of Australians are still confused about what goes where.

In New Zealand, education and regulation are the key to lasting change.  At the manufacturing level, opt-in guidelines for better packaging have not worked in the past, and businesses openly support more stringent regulations that level the competitive playing field [Source: New Zealand Geographic]. At the residential level, education is essential if they are to shift perception and change behavior in a meaningful way.

In spite of these challenges and apparent pitfalls, Australia has made a clear commitment to support recycling at every level, and their efforts continue to show. New Zealand has further to go, but they are taking steps in the right direction. We’re looking forward to watching both countries as they continue to grow.

logo-green.png About Recycle Coach: Recycle Coach specializes in digital solutions for municipal and private waste management services to effectively educate and engage residents. Our technology platforms for web, mobile, and digital assistants focus on education and encouragement to help residents to be better recyclers, with the goal of inspiring positive and lasting change in communities around the world. It is our constant innovation and scalability of services that allow us to meet the needs of over 3000 communities across the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and more.  

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Topics: Recycling Outreach, For Municipalities in Australia & New Zealand

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