The most up-to-date stats show Australians generated 67 million tonnes of waste in 2016-2017.

Of that, about 54 million tonnes is known as “core waste”, and is dealt with by the waste and resource recovery industry.

The rest is things like ash from electricity generation, mud from refining, manure from farming and liquid waste like sewage — stuff that can’t be picked up by a rubbish truck on bin day.

While a lot of the focus is on households, more than a third of our waste comes from the construction and demolition industry, and the same amount comes from the commercial and industrial sector.

Compared with other similar developed countries, the Department of Environment says we generate “more waste than the average” and recycle “a little less than the average”.

“We have way too much of a view that it’s just waste and you just throw it out,” says Gayle Sloan, the CEO of the Waste Management Association of Australia.

Where’s it all going?

Jenni Downes, a researcher at Monash University’s Sustainable Development Institute, says what happens once rubbish is put in a bin remains a mystery for many people.

She says a big part of that is the fact that waste companies have “designed their services to be almost invisible”.

“They’ve tried to make it as simple and convenient for householders so that you put your waste in the bin, and it disappears. Poof, it’s gone.”

For what goes into general waste bins the outcome is pretty simple — in most instances, it goes straight into landfill.

A large portion of that — about 6.7 million tonnes — is organic waste like food and garden waste, which creates methane-rich greenhouse gases as it decomposes.

Only about 2 per cent of our waste is converted to energy, a much lower rate than some European countries.

And it’s estimated about 130,000 tonnes of Australian plastic ends up in waterways and oceans each year.

The three main ways it ends up there, according to WWF, are littering, products like wet wipes being flushed and plastic flying away from landfill processing.

What’s the recycling process like?

There are generally quite a few steps before recycling can be what the industry calls “manufacture ready”.

An illustrated graphic showing a yellow-lid bin, a rubbish truck and a building.

PHOTO: Kerbside recycling is first taken by a rubbish truck to a material recovery facility. (ABC News: Andrew Harrison)

An illustrated graphic showing a flow-chart of sorting in to different recycling bins.

PHOTO: It’s then sorted into different streams, and often sorted again into sub-categories. With plastic, that’s where those little numbers on the packaging come in. (ABC News: Andrew Harrison)

An illustrated graphic showing how plastic is processed into pellets.

PHOTO: Plastic is then shredded, granulated, washed, dried, decontaminated and finally made into pellets that can be used in manufacturing. (ABC News: Andrew Harrison)

So why does recycling get sent to landfill?

Where your recycling ends up really depends on what kind of material it is.

A graph showing the rates of recycling for different materials, including 90 per cent for metals and 12 per cent for plastics.

PHOTO: Most of Australia’s metal gets recycled, but other materials don’t have the same fate. (ABC News: Andrew Harrison)

A graph showing the rates of recycling for different materials, including 52 per cent for organics and 12 per cent for plastic.

PHOTO: A large portion of our plastic is sent straight to landfill — often due to the way plastic creeps into so much packaging. (ABC News: Andrew Harrison)

Even once your recycling goes into the right bin, a lot of it is unusable due to contamination — broken glass, food, plastic bags, rubbish and liquids all increase the chance of the material being eventually sent to landfill.

“The difficulty is that over the past 20 years or so, our packaging has become much, much more sophisticated, and the types of materials and the way they’re put in have become way more complicated than when we first learnt to recycle,” Ms Downes says.

Things like plastic-lined paper, tissues and glassware often don’t make the cut.

The recycling company Visy calls this “wish-cycling” — where people hope materials can be recycled, but their presence actually dooms other perfectly good recyclables to landfill.

To combat this, Infrastructure Victoria has recommended a six-bin system so all the separating is done at home.

It’s more of a problem with kerbside recycling, as business and construction often get charged more if their waste isn’t up to scratch.

Large cubes of plastic waste bundled in a huge warehouse.

PHOTO: Lots of recyclable goods sit in warehouses or sorting facilities for a long time before they reach a final destination. (ABC News: James Oaten)

And even if it’s totally pristine, there’s no guarantee it’ll actually be recycled at the end of the process if there isn’t a buyer for it.

A 2017 Four Corners investigation found hundreds of thousands of tonnes of glass — which at the time was expensive to recycle — was sitting in New South Wales warehouses because there was “no viable market” for it.

In recent months, major Victorian company SKM Recycling went insolvent. While a number of councils and the State Government scrambled to find a solution, an estimated 780 rubbish trucks’ worth of recyclables were sent to landfill in a week.


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Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels



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