Establishing political priority for regulatory interventions in waste management in Australia

Published July 2020 by Stephen Jones

Stephen Jones (2019): Establishing political priority for regulatory interventions in waste management in Australia, Australian Journal of Political Science, DOI: 10.1080/10361146.2019.1706721

Australia’s rising volume of waste per capita and dependence on offshore waste processing have brought the inadequacies of our recycling infrastructure to the public’s attention. Despite overwhelming public support for improvements to Australia’s recycling system, reliance on state-based voluntary agreements rather than overarching Commonwealth regulation has hampered efforts to achieve change.

“In Australia, the state responsibility for waste has been the critical factor restricting the Commonwealth in making waste a political priority.”


  • To date, Australia’s local, state and Commonwealth governments have failed to adopt a coordinated approach to improve recycling resulting in an unsustainable and fragmented approach to waste management.
  • This unsustainable and fragmented approach is out of sync with current views on recycling. Australians view recycling in two important ways: as essential to reducing environmental harm and as a valuable resource for employment and materials that is currently underutilised.
  • Australia’s fragmented and voluntary approach to waste management is underpinned by Australia’s multi-level government system where responsibility for waste management is held by each state who in turn resist interference by the Commonwealth government.
  • Further constraining the implementation of regulation is business community cohesion over avoiding waste regulation. Retailing, packaging and food industry bodies have strongly advocated for self-regulatory mechanisms and/or voluntary agreements. To date, industry have successfully pressured governments using economic arguments with threats to the cost of living and jobs against implementing regulatory measures.
  • Finally, consistent nation-wide data on recycling remains elusive. Good quality nationally consistent and comprehensive data on waste and re-use of materials would make important contributions to better understanding the impact of current and future waste management initiatives.

What’s new

Constitutional and institutional factors currently inhibit the development of Commonwealth regulation to address significant deficiencies within Australia’s waste management processes.

  • The key insight? Australia’s Commonwealth government must give political priority to replacing uncoordinated voluntary waste management measures with coordinated regulatory interventions.

Bottom line

Commonwealth coordinated regulation applied to state governments, together with good quality nationally consistent and comprehensive data, would make important contributions to the development of effective waste management initiatives.

Contact Stephen Jones to learn more about the research.

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