History of Australian Recycling

Over the past decade, concern about the environment has brought with it a massive increase in recycling in Australia and around the world. 

However, long before our growing levels of waste became an environmental concern, recycling was a part of every day life. Resources were not as readily available as they are today so people valued them and re-used materials where ever possible.

Recycling has become an increasingly important part of our more modern society.

Australia's Early Recycling Industries

The first Australian paper mill to use recycled material was built in 1815 - it used recycled rags to make paper. Waste paper collections from households and factories started in Melbourne in the 1920s.

More common cart and horse collections of newspaper from households began in Australia in the 1940's. This paper was typically re-used or recycled into packaging material.

Charitable organisations have been recycling household goods and clothing for over 100 years.

BHP Steel first started recycling industrial steel scrap back in 1915. Glass bottles and aluminium cans were also collected by scouting groups and other community-based organisations to be re-used or recycled by bottle and can manufacturers.

Scrap metal dealers have long recovered the valuable metals from old motor cars and white goods, to be used again in other new products. Henry Ford recycled his Model T Fords back in the 1920's in order to save money and resources.

This recycling of car bodies continues to this day with this type of metal having an ongoing value to metal recyclers. Today, even the majority of unwanted car batteries are being recycled.

Over 20 years ago, companies like Comalco established active campaigns to promote aluminium can recycling to the general public. The Comalco 'Cash-for-cans' program targeted children and community groups to collect aluminium cans and deliver them to special buy-back centres in return for cash. This has raised significant monies for community and charity projects around Australia.

Changing Attitudes

In February of 1975, Canterbury Council became the first Australian municipality to use magnetic separation to recover steel waste, including cans.

More recently, recycling has become an everyday phenomenon for most people, spurred by concern about the impact of our waste disposal practices on the environment.

Thankfully, rubbish tips are no longer seen as the most appropriate solution for dealing with our waste.

Increasingly, our waste is being recognised as a valuable resource that shouldn't just be landfilled.

Government & Legislative Support for Recycling

In 1977, South Australia introduced container deposit legislation to encourage the return of beverage containers for re-use or recycling.

This legislation aimed primarily to reduce both solid waste and litter.

The 80's and early 90's saw the introduction of kerbside recycling schemes, initially in Sydney, and then spreading to the other major centres and more recently to regional areas. These schemes allowed households to separate out common items such as paper, glass and aluminium, and later PET, HDPE milk containers, liquidpaperboard milk and juice cartons and steel cans.

In 1992, the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) endorsed a National Kerbside Recycling Strategy which included a range of voluntary recycling targets for the major packaging industries. Australia became one of the first countries to have a national voluntary recycling plan giving commitments at all levels of industry.

The Strategy also set out a number of other objectives, including the extension of kerbside recycling schemes to at least 90% of households in major urban areas. From 1990 to 1993, the rate of household recycling in Australia doubled. The improvements in recycling rates have continued and are covered elsewhere in this chapter.

Even green waste, which comprises up to half of our household waste, is now being recycled using composting and mulching methods.

Vermiculture (large scale worm farming) is also playing an increasing role in reducing this kind of waste - it's even being used to deal with human and animal wastes, turning them into fertiliser that can be used on the land in place of artificial fertilisers and pesticides.

Recent Developments

In July 1999, ANZECC Ministers agreed to the National Packaging Covenant to complement and further the achievements of the National Kerbside Recycling Strategy.

Based on the principles of shared responsibility, product stewardship and lifecycle management, the Covenant seeks to ensure costs are shared equitably; secure the viability of kerbside recycling by minimising the environmental impacts of consumer packaging waste; close the recycling loop and develop economically viable and sustainable recycling collection systems.

The Covenant encompasses the entire packaging chain including governments, producers, wholesalers, distributors, retailers, fillers and brand owners, who make the key decisions on design and characteristics of the packaging used for their products.

Many Australian organisations and industries have signed the Packaging Covenant as part of their commitment to reducing packaging waste along with their impact on the environment.

An important component of the Covenant is the industry offer of $17.45 million, matched by funds from participating States and Territories, to develop sustainable market based kerbside recycling collection system.

In 2012, the Australian Government introduced the industry funded National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme. The Scheme requires importers and manufacturers to join and fund industry-run arrangements, such as the not-for-profit organisation TechCollect, to establish free recycling drop off points around Australia.

Following the success of South Australia, the Northern Territory set up a Container Deposit Scheme in 2012. Beverage companies opposed the scheme, stating that it was in breach of federal law. In August 2013 however, the Northern Territory was granted a permanent exception from the Mutual Recognition Act, allowing the scheme to continue.

In 2013 Australian Paper began construction of a $90 million paper recycling plant at Maryvale in Victoria, to greatly increase the production of local recycled paper. This will be the only premium paper recycling plant in Australia capable of making high quality recycled office and printing papers. The plant will prevent the need to import recycled pulp from overseas and reduce the amount of waste office paper sent to landfill.

Read more about the paper recycling plant...

Paper recycling plant at Maryvale, Victoria under construction (as of May 2014)

Recycling is playing a significant and increasing role in our society.

The history of recycling shows that it is not a fad of modern society, but something that reflects our inner desire to 'do more with less'.