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Charted: The Global Plastic Waste Trade



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:

RankCountryExported Plastic Waste (2020)
1Germany853,860,858 kg
2Japan820,742,495 kg
3USA624,511,072 kg
4United Kingdom560,986,540 kg
5Netherlands413,233,255 kg
6Belgium346,218,522 kg
7France333,748,686 kg
8Italy217,167,070 kg
9Slovenia181,914,979 kg
10Austria179,322,638 kg
11Poland155,891,362 kg
12Canada150,206,837 kg
13China, Hong Kong SAR112,080,263 kg
14Sweden111,514,132 kg
15Australia100,204,277 kg
16Czechia89,082,929 kg
17Spain86,854,314 kg
18Thailand85,385,733 kg
19Switzerland83,005,449 kg
20Philippines75,168,153 kg
21Nigeria74,639,859 kg
22Norway71,372,606 kg
23Denmark55,662,774 kg
24Greece53,393,857 kg
25Portugal53,003,217 kg
26China50,478,220 kg
27Ireland48,751,674 kg
28Indonesia43,724,756 kg
29Other Asia, nes43,457,341 kg
30Viet Nam37,175,812 kg
31Singapore34,704,348 kg
32Croatia32,316,215 kg
33Romania29,700,995 kg
34Lithuania28,983,059 kg
35Republic of Korea28,904,472 kg
36Slovakia27,652,928 kg
37Russian Federation25,644,305 kg
38Mexico24,702,933 kg
39Saudi Arabia23,481,323 kg
40New Zealand22,480,990 kg
41Israel21,643,157 kg
42Malaysia19,027,615 kg
43Latvia17,866,739 kg
44Estonia16,294,944 kg
45Finland15,249,438 kg
46Dominican Republic14,719,180 kg
47Turkey14,523,187 kg
48United Republic of Tanzania14,479,176 kg
49Belarus13,835,708 kg
50Nicaragua11,514,077 kg
51Luxembourg10,803,768 kg
52Iceland10,672,493 kg
53Cyprus9,892,697 kg
54Chile9,794,134 kg
55Bulgaria9,617,547 kg
56Jamaica9,017,513 kg
57Costa Rica8,825,189 kg
58Serbia7,760,215 kg
59El Salvador7,419,495 kg
60Myanmar7,249,896 kg
61Cambodia6,951,533 kg
62Lebanon6,415,630 kg
63Bosnia Herzegovina6,007,289 kg
64Kazakhstan5,653,113 kg
65Guatemala5,379,563 kg
66Ethiopia4,713,442 kg
67Senegal4,642,680 kg
68Uganda4,418,835 kg
69Mauritania4,295,751 kg
70Pakistan4,290,080 kg
71Kenya3,840,457 kg
72India3,819,791 kg
73Colombia3,804,346 kg
74United Arab Emirates3,772,818 kg
75Ecuador3,483,956 kg
76North Macedonia3,477,001 kg
77Panama3,317,193 kg
78Lao People's Democratic Republic3,124,150 kg
79Tajikistan3,062,960 kg
80Morocco3,026,647 kg
81Kuwait2,407,677 kg
82Namibia2,353,190 kg
83Brazil2,347,776 kg
84Ukraine2,278,326 kg
85Hungary2,249,520 kg
86South Africa2,079,115 kg
87Barbados1,859,440 kg
88Rwanda1,805,214 kg
89Kyrgyzstan1,775,603 kg
90Oman1,721,228 kg
91Zambia1,699,478 kg
92Mauritius1,517,428 kg
93Mozambique1,470,146 kg
94Egypt1,348,091 kg
95Malta1,282,539 kg
96Burkina Faso1,225,000 kg
97Uruguay1,114,915 kg
98Paraguay1,003,800 kg
99Bolivia (Plurinational State of)740,180 kg
100Trinidad and Tobago658,955 kg
101Eswatini649,645 kg
102Georgia643,683 kg
103French Polynesia577,460 kg
104Sri Lanka483,401 kg
105Botswana482,755 kg
106Jordan440,681 kg
107Belize368,658 kg
108Togo366,264 kg
109China, Macao SAR350,362 kg
110Azerbaijan300,000 kg
111Peru250,030 kg
112Zimbabwe200,001 kg
113Benin190,360 kg
114Uzbekistan188,430 kg
115Montenegro171,132 kg
116Republic of Moldova169,735 kg
117Fiji155,396 kg
118Burundi111,370 kg
119Congo94,000 kg
120Grenada49,504 kg
121Brunei Darussalam39,660 kg
122Malawi25,709 kg
123Cayman Isds1,435 kg
124Lesotho133 kg
125Guyana100 kg
126Democratic Republic of the Congo33 kg
127Armenia1 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:

RankCountryImported Plastic Waste (2020)
1Malaysia715,274,628 kg
2Türkiye619,287,422 kg
3Germany567,239,848 kg
4Viet Nam440,706,678 kg
5Netherlands417,312,448 kg
6USA243,981,665 kg
7Indonesia233,926,526 kg
8Other Asia, nes230,934,455 kg
9Poland195,332,771 kg
10Italy192,114,936 kg
11China, Hong Kong SAR186,629,825 kg
12Belgium185,232,530 kg
13Spain182,033,579 kg
14Austria170,175,178 kg
15Canada167,123,643 kg
16China150,033,032 kg
17United Kingdom144,482,263 kg
18Thailand130,341,730 kg
19France128,752,962 kg
20Slovenia102,353,864 kg
21Rep. of Korea97,893,699 kg
22India89,145,346 kg
23Czechia79,601,672 kg
24Mexico68,782,729 kg
25Latvia68,107,317 kg
26Lithuania66,374,140 kg
27Bulgaria63,823,882 kg
28Switzerland61,347,327 kg
29Ireland54,078,049 kg
30Romania47,989,380 kg
31Pakistan45,750,791 kg
32Serbia37,292,746 kg
33Denmark33,324,445 kg
34Russian Federation31,817,270 kg
35Ukraine30,817,214 kg
36Sweden30,007,480 kg
37Slovakia29,347,402 kg
38Uzbekistan27,090,552 kg
39Greece22,635,566 kg
40Bosnia Herzegovina21,829,094 kg
41Hungary21,118,259 kg
42Portugal19,953,840 kg
43Honduras18,408,892 kg
44Luxembourg16,654,349 kg
45Australia13,731,068 kg
46Bangladesh13,344,977 kg
47Myanmar13,084,157 kg
48Croatia13,046,429 kg
49Brazil12,040,500 kg
50Philippines10,964,992 kg
51Ecuador10,012,297 kg
52El Salvador9,934,333 kg
53Nigeria8,975,285 kg
54South Africa8,290,544 kg
55United Arab Emirates8,194,024 kg
56Yemen8,122,620 kg
57Kenya8,042,308 kg
58Finland7,927,225 kg
59Peru7,830,729 kg
60Singapore7,812,335 kg
61Saudi Arabia7,772,952 kg
62Norway7,465,358 kg
63Oman7,337,017 kg
64Morocco6,354,623 kg
65Israel5,435,111 kg
66Estonia5,112,549 kg
67Azerbaijan5,059,007 kg
68New Zealand4,986,243 kg
69Lao People's Dem. Rep.4,896,151 kg
70Ghana4,525,868 kg
71Egypt4,265,787 kg
72Angola3,848,302 kg
73Guatemala3,786,378 kg
74Cyprus3,699,497 kg
75Belarus3,363,907 kg
76Japan3,045,561 kg
77Mozambique2,828,608 kg
78United Rep. of Tanzania2,801,914 kg
79Costa Rica2,584,350 kg
80Nicaragua2,400,367 kg
81Paraguay2,128,994 kg
82Colombia2,037,539 kg
83South Sudan1,709,764 kg
84Uganda1,559,662 kg
85Zimbabwe1,511,063 kg
86Sri Lanka1,502,126 kg
87Senegal1,362,546 kg
88North Macedonia1,126,010 kg
89Côte d'Ivoire939,404 kg
90Dominican Rep.768,374 kg
91Afghanistan754,746 kg
92Kazakhstan717,188 kg
93Togo698,210 kg
94Cuba680,609 kg
95Iraq627,911 kg
96Lebanon583,037 kg
97Montenegro571,380 kg
98Uruguay505,549 kg
99Bahrain499,397 kg
100Ethiopia493,057 kg
101Panama454,236 kg
102Djibouti447,649 kg
103Libya445,997 kg
104Nepal430,028 kg
105Tajikistan405,577 kg
106Kyrgyzstan389,064 kg
107Georgia379,580 kg
108Chad375,055 kg
109Areas, nes366,189 kg
110Chile348,504 kg
111Qatar289,691 kg
112Guinea247,240 kg
113Venezuela239,537 kg
114Zambia233,551 kg
115Burkina Faso193,232 kg
116Sudan188,732 kg
117Mauritius176,928 kg
118Benin168,956 kg
119Malta157,233 kg
120Jamaica150,529 kg
121Tunisia149,199 kg
122Democratic Republic of the Congo147,105 kg
123Cambodia143,448 kg
124Cameroon137,262 kg
125Gabon136,495 kg
126Iran129,535 kg
127Kuwait104,493 kg
128Algeria86,902 kg
129Brunei Darussalam83,517 kg
130Albania83,138 kg
131Rwanda82,091 kg
132Armenia71,820 kg
133Democratic People's Republic of Korea66,000 kg
134Bhutan52,653 kg
135Cayman Isds52,513 kg
136Equatorial Guinea44,051 kg
137Bolivia (Plurinational State of)42,858 kg
138Argentina38,707 kg
139Namibia33,211 kg
140Trinidad and Tobago31,811 kg
141Jordan28,770 kg
142Suriname22,976 kg
143Madagascar22,672 kg
144Syria22,100 kg
145Andorra20,387 kg
146Mali20,200 kg
147Saint Helena19,587 kg
148Mongolia19,111 kg
149Bermuda18,814 kg
150Maldives18,130 kg
151Botswana16,041 kg
152Timor-Leste12,459 kg
153Saint Lucia10,739 kg
154Mauritania10,300 kg
155Saint Vincent and the Grenadines8,281 kg
156Haiti7,769 kg
157Aruba5,833 kg
158Malawi5,716 kg
159Vanuatu5,000 kg
160Belize4,294 kg
161Eswatini3,730 kg
162Turks and Caicos Isds3,453 kg
163Fiji3,212 kg
164Curaçao1,485 kg
165Bahamas1,361 kg
166Faeroe Isds1,062 kg
167Guyana1,004 kg
168Lesotho547 kg
169Bonaire392 kg
170Gibraltar380 kg
171Papua New Guinea191 kg
172Guam140 kg
173Cabo Verde100 kg
174New Caledonia73 kg
175Liberia50 kg
176Bunkers50 kg
177Cocos Isds44 kg
178Br. Virgin Isds35 kg
179Republic of Moldova31 kg
180Saint Pierre and Miquelon5 kg
181Iceland3 kg
182Seychelles2 kg
183Sierra Leone1 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).

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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.

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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



How the Russian Invasion of Ukraine Impacts Science

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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