Charted: The Global Plastic Waste Trade
Charting the Movement of Global Plastic Waste
Every year, nations worldwide produce around 350 million metric tons of plastic waste. This is equivalent to over 10 million fully loaded garbage trucks.
Most of this plastic waste is either incinerated or sent to landfills, thus eventually polluting our air, land, and oceans. Only a fraction of this waste is recycled, and contrary to popular belief, just 2% is traded internationally.
This graphic by Our World in Data uses data from OECD and UN Comtrade to reveal just how much plastic waste is traded across borders, and which countries are estimated to export and import the most of it.
Why Trade Waste?
Though most plastic waste is managed and recycled within countries, exporting spare waste helps manage a part of their plastic emissions more cheaply and reduces pressure on local recycling facilities and landfills.
Importing plastics, on the other hand, comes with certain financial benefits too. Repurposing recycled plastics into goods is a far cheaper option for industries that would otherwise rely on buying newly manufactured expensive plastics. And many countries differ when it comes to their specific plastic recycling capabilities and needs, so while they might export some plastic waste, they also import others that are useful.
Research has even found that higher plastic waste imports have positively impacted the economic growth of many low-income countries, in the right circumstances.
However, when countries export unusable and non-recyclable contaminated plastics, these same low-income nations may see the end-of-life ecosystem costs outweigh any financial benefits.
The World’s Biggest Plastic Importers and Exporters
With its reported plastic waste exports nearing four million metric tons, Europe exports nearly 80% of the world’s traded plastic waste. However, as most is reportedly exported to other European nations, it is also the largest importing region.
Here are the world’s top plastic waste exporters in 2020 according to UN Comtrade data:
|Rank||Country||Exported Plastic Waste (2020)|
|4||United Kingdom||560,986,540 kg|
|13||China, Hong Kong SAR||112,080,263 kg|
|29||Other Asia, nes||43,457,341 kg|
|30||Viet Nam||37,175,812 kg|
|35||Republic of Korea||28,904,472 kg|
|37||Russian Federation||25,644,305 kg|
|39||Saudi Arabia||23,481,323 kg|
|40||New Zealand||22,480,990 kg|
|46||Dominican Republic||14,719,180 kg|
|48||United Republic of Tanzania||14,479,176 kg|
|57||Costa Rica||8,825,189 kg|
|59||El Salvador||7,419,495 kg|
|63||Bosnia Herzegovina||6,007,289 kg|
|74||United Arab Emirates||3,772,818 kg|
|76||North Macedonia||3,477,001 kg|
|78||Lao People's Democratic Republic||3,124,150 kg|
|86||South Africa||2,079,115 kg|
|96||Burkina Faso||1,225,000 kg|
|99||Bolivia (Plurinational State of)||740,180 kg|
|100||Trinidad and Tobago||658,955 kg|
|103||French Polynesia||577,460 kg|
|104||Sri Lanka||483,401 kg|
|109||China, Macao SAR||350,362 kg|
|116||Republic of Moldova||169,735 kg|
|121||Brunei Darussalam||39,660 kg|
|123||Cayman Isds||1,435 kg|
|126||Democratic Republic of the Congo||33 kg|
Due to political reasons, UN Comtrade includes Taiwan data under “Other Asia, not elsewhere specified.”
Germany, which is the world’s largest exporter of plastic scraps and waste at 854 million kilograms, relies primarily on the Netherlands, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Türkiye, and Malaysia to manage this plastic waste.
Asia’s largest plastic exports are from Japan, which trades primarily with other Asian countries including Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea. In 2020, Japan was the world’s second-largest plastic waste exporter with 821 million kilograms shipped.
Third on this list is the United States. The country is estimated to have exported more than 600 million kilograms of plastic waste in 2020, and while a majority was traded with Canada, a portion also went to Mexico, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Hong Kong, and Indonesia.
And on the receiving end, Malaysia and Türkiye have become the world’s largest plastic waste importers, primarily from within their respective regions:
|Rank||Country||Imported Plastic Waste (2020)|
|4||Viet Nam||440,706,678 kg|
|8||Other Asia, nes||230,934,455 kg|
|11||China, Hong Kong SAR||186,629,825 kg|
|17||United Kingdom||144,482,263 kg|
|21||Rep. of Korea||97,893,699 kg|
|34||Russian Federation||31,817,270 kg|
|40||Bosnia Herzegovina||21,829,094 kg|
|52||El Salvador||9,934,333 kg|
|54||South Africa||8,290,544 kg|
|55||United Arab Emirates||8,194,024 kg|
|61||Saudi Arabia||7,772,952 kg|
|68||New Zealand||4,986,243 kg|
|69||Lao People's Dem. Rep.||4,896,151 kg|
|78||United Rep. of Tanzania||2,801,914 kg|
|79||Costa Rica||2,584,350 kg|
|83||South Sudan||1,709,764 kg|
|86||Sri Lanka||1,502,126 kg|
|88||North Macedonia||1,126,010 kg|
|89||CÃ´te d'Ivoire||939,404 kg|
|90||Dominican Rep.||768,374 kg|
|109||Areas, nes||366,189 kg|
|115||Burkina Faso||193,232 kg|
|122||Democratic Republic of the Congo||147,105 kg|
|129||Brunei Darussalam||83,517 kg|
|133||Democratic People's Republic of Korea||66,000 kg|
|135||Cayman Isds||52,513 kg|
|136||Equatorial Guinea||44,051 kg|
|137||Bolivia (Plurinational State of)||42,858 kg|
|140||Trinidad and Tobago||31,811 kg|
|147||Saint Helena||19,587 kg|
|153||Saint Lucia||10,739 kg|
|155||Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||8,281 kg|
|162||Turks and Caicos Isds||3,453 kg|
|166||Faeroe Isds||1,062 kg|
|171||Papua New Guinea||191 kg|
|173||Cabo Verde||100 kg|
|174||New Caledonia||73 kg|
|177||Cocos Isds||44 kg|
|178||Br. Virgin Isds||35 kg|
|179||Republic of Moldova||31 kg|
|180||Saint Pierre and Miquelon||5 kg|
|183||Sierra Leone||1 kg|
How the Plastic Waste Trade is Changing
Up until 2017, China was one of the world’s largest plastic waste importers, which it used for its manufacturing industries. In 2018, it imposed import bans on 24 types of recyclable waste, and their plastic waste imports dropped by over 95% within a year.
In 2019, 187 nations signed an international treaty called the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. Aimed at addressing the gaps in plastic waste disposal, this treaty restricts participating nations from trading plastic scraps internationally, unless it lacks sufficient recycling or disposal capacity.
And over the last decade, the global plastic trade has indeed declined tremendously. But millions of tons of plastic are still being shipped (and mismanaged).
This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.
How the Russian Invasion of Ukraine Impacts Science and Academia
What is the impact of war on science and academia? We examine how nations and the scientific community have responded to the conflict
One Year of War
On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded the eastern territories of Ukraine, claiming ownership of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. This began one of the largest military conflicts in modern European history.
After a year of casualties, structural devastation, and innumerable headlines, the conflict drags on. Many report the impacts to the economy, social demographics, and international relationships, but how do science and academia fair in the throes of war?
Within the actions and responses of the conflict, we take a look at how six key scenarios globally shape science.
War’s Material Impacts to Science
1. Russia Invades Ukraine
The assault to research infrastructure in Ukraine is devastating.
Approximately 27% of buildings are damaged or destroyed. The country’s leading scientific research centers, like the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, or the world’s largest decameter-wavelength radio telescope, are in ruins.
While the majority of research centers remain standing, many are not operating. Amidst rolling blackouts and disruptions, a dramatic decrease in research funds (as large as 50%) has cut back scientific activity in the country.
Rebuilding efforts are underway, but the extent to which it will return to its former capacity remains to be seen.
2. Ukraine Fights Back
As research funds have been redirected to the military, and scientists, too, have pivoted in a similar way. Martial law and general mobilization have enlisted male researchers, especially those with military experience and those within the 18-60 age range.
Women were exempt until July 2022. Those with degrees in chemistry, biology, and telecommunications were required to enter the military registry.
For both men and women researchers alike, these requirements meant staying in the country for the remainder of the year. Extensions for mobilization have subsided as of February 19th, 2023.
Social Impacts of War to Science
3. Western Leaders Exclude Russia
One year ago, scientists and institutions around the world immediately launched into protest against Russia’s escalation:
- The European Commission agreed to cease payments to Russian participants and to not renew contract agreements for Horizon Europe
- The $300-million, MIT-led Skoltech program was dissolved one day after the war began, with no foreseeable restart in the future
- Various governments and research councils in the European Union froze collaborations and discouraged working with Russian institutions
- The European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, barred all Russian observers and will dismiss almost 8% of its workers—about 1,000 Russian scientists—hen contracts expire later this year
These condemnations, and more, remain in effect today and are emboldened by what has come to be known as a “scientific boycott”.
Journal publishers around the world imposed some of their own sanctions on Russian institutions and scientists in light of this boycott. These range from prohibiting Russian manuscript submissions (Elsevier’s Journal of Molecular Structure) to scrubbing journal indices of Russian papers and authors.
4. Russia Dissociates from the West
As a response to the sanctions imposed on the Russian economy, Russia ceases to sell natural gas to most of Europe. Institutions are reassessing their usage and dependence on Russian energy, but alternatives are not yet affordable.
The German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, home to the world’s most powerful X-ray laser, is struggling with rising electricity costs. CERN, for instance, has already cut its data collection for the year by two weeks in order to save money.
This makes it difficult for pre-war projects to continue collaborating with Russia. As a result, there are questions about how withdrawals may be affecting Russian science, too.
For now, that remains relatively unknown, though some have guesses. Young scientists, many barred from attending international conferences and meetings, may seek employment or opportunity elsewhere to develop their careers. Some speculate a “brain drain” effect may occur, similar to the academic fallout of the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s.
How Russia will participate in pre-war international research collaborations is still unknown. For now, a number of pre-war projects ranging from the Arctic to the fire-prone wilds of northern Russia are on hold. All of these scenarios paint a concerning picture about the progress of research.
There are indications that Russian scientific collaboration may already be shifting eastward.
Philanthropic Impacts of War to Science
5. New Homes for Ukrainian Science
Finding support for Ukrainians emigrating from the conflict is difficult, but not impossible. Though many Ukrainians scientists remain in the country making the best of a difficult situation, approximately 6,000 are now living abroad.
Most Ukrainian emigrants are now living in Poland and Germany. Some scientists continue to work remotely, supporting projects at their home institutions or with new research programs they’ve found since relocating.
These success stories are thanks to the work of a number of ad-hoc mobilizations that help keep researchers working in the European cooperation. Groups like MSC4Ukraine help postdoc students and researchers find new opportunities across Europe. Social media trends like #Science4Ukraine help connect researchers to other supportive movements.
6. The International Rebuilding of Ukrainian Science
Various research institutions have also lent support to the survival and rebuilding of science in Ukraine:
- The largest science prize, the Breakthrough Prize, recently donated $3 million to fund research programs and reconstruction efforts
- Federal research councils, like those in Netherlands and Switzerland, also have programs to formally support displaced scientists and researchers
- The European Union is investigating new funding schemes that could repurpose almost €320 billion of frozen Russian Federal Reserves
No Consensus on Boycott
While the Western front seems united in it’s condemnation of the war, the international science community isn’t in total agreement with a science boycott.
Some scientists argue that excluding Russian scientists—especially those who have vocalized their disdain for the war—serves to punish unrelated individuals. This fractures the benefits of international scientific exchange.
Others, especially those in countries who are economically dependent on Russia, have remained silent or even supported the invasion. In these cases, Russia’s science initiatives may lean more heavily in their direction.
It’s easy to appreciate how war complicates many different angles of the global research ecosystem. After one year, how things will turn out remains a mystery. But one thing is for certain: science adapts and progresses even in the bleakest times. For now, supporting all efforts to reduce conflict remains in science’s best interests.
Full sources here
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