Waste, resource recovery and recycling

Articles Written by Samantha Daly (Partner), Angus Hannam (Senior Associate), Heather Pym (Associate)

In Australia, waste management and resource recovery is primarily the responsibility of state and territory governments. Although the legislative framework differs in each jurisdiction, a number of common themes can be identified, including:

  • The establishment of a statutory framework to permit and license the transportation, storage, treatment and disposal of materials deemed to be “waste” (which are defined and classified in a variety of different ways as between jurisdictions);
  • The creation of offences (including offences carrying criminal penalties) for unlawful dealings with waste;
  • The establishment of schemes to incentivise the recovery, reuse and recycling of materials that would otherwise need to be dealt with as waste;
  • In most cases, the imposition of a landfill levy, whereby landfills are required to pay some amount to their government for each tonne of waste deposited to landfill, thereby pushing up the cost of landfill operations and incentivising recycling; and
  • The creation of strategies and setting of resource recovery targets to guide government organisations and industry to improve waste management.

At a local level, the roles and responsibilities of local governments in waste regulation depend on state-based requirements, however they generally include the provision and management of household waste collection and recycling, the regulation (and potential operation) of landfill operations, providing and maintaining litter infrastructure, and managing compliance and enforcement for littering and illegal waste disposal.

Along with the Commonwealth and the Australian Local Government Association, state governments have set a unified direction for waste and recycling in Australia through the adoption of the 2018 National Waste Policy. It provides a framework for collective action by governments and stakeholders (including businesses, communities and individuals) until 2030 and embodies the notion of a “circular economy”, whereby the value of resources are maintained as long as possible, and incorporates the “waste hierarchy”, which seeks to prioritise the avoidance of waste over its disposal to landfill, as well as support efforts to reduce, reuse, recycling, recover and treat different forms of waste. Investment in energy recovery, or “waste to energy”, is on the rise in Australia and globally and includes projects involving the conversion of organic waste from waste facilities into energy by anaerobic digestion processes, household waste through thermal processes such as incineration, and methane captured from landfill through pipe systems.



The National Waste Policy is implemented through the National Waste Policy Action Plan (2019) which presents concrete targets and actions to guide investment and national efforts until 2030. Targets in the Action Plan include a ban on the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres (which is being gradually implemented, including through the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020 (Cth)), a 10% per person reduction in total waste generation by 2030, and an 80% average resource recovery rate from all waste streams in accordance with the waste hierarchy by 2030. Together, the Waste Policy and the Action Plan give effect to Australia’s international obligations, including UN Sustainable Development Goal 12 relating to responsible consumption and production. Progress against the actions set out in the Action Plan is set out in the National Waste Report, which has been prepared by the Australian Government in collaboration with state and territory governments since 2010. It aims to integrate economic and environmental data to improve understanding of the challenges and opportunities for Australia’s waste and resource recovery industries.

In NSW, the EPA’s Energy from Waste Policy Statement informs a best practice framework for EfW facilities, setting out the requirements for low-risk wastes proposed for thermal energy production processes and all other wastes. The EPA provides a list of eligible waste fuels considered as low-risk, rates of emissions permitted by type of pollutant and resource recovery criteria for accepted proportions of mixed waste. Eligible waste fuels in NSW include biomass from agriculture, forestry and sawmilling residues, uncontaminated wood waste, recovered waste oil, organic residues from virgin paper pulp activities, landfill gas and biogas, source-separated green waste and tyres. Importantly the Statement limits the development of EfW facilities to specific defined areas within NSW.

Important Disclaimer: The material contained in this article is comment of a general nature only and is not and nor is it intended to be advice on any specific professional matter. In that the effectiveness or accuracy of any professional advice depends upon the particular circumstances of each case, neither the firm nor any individual author accepts any responsibility whatsoever for any acts or omissions resulting from reliance upon the content of any articles. Before acting on the basis of any material contained in this publication, we recommend that you consult your professional adviser. Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation (Australia-wide except in Tasmania).

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