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Mapping the Flow of the World’s Plastic Waste

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Plastic Waste Imports and Exports
plastic waste exports imports

Mapping the Flow of the World’s Plastic Waste

The first plastic material, Bakelite, was invented in 1907. It made its way into everything you can imagine: telephones, chess pieces, Chanel jewelry, and electric guitars.

But it was in 1950 that our thirst for plastic truly began. In just 65 years, plastic production soared almost 200 times, resulting in about 6,300 million metric tons of waste today.

How does the world deal with this much debris? The truth is, a lot of plastic waste—both trash and recycled materials—is often shipped overseas to become someone else’s problem.

The Top Exporters and Importers of Plastic Waste

In honor of International Plastic Bag-Free day, today’s graphic uses data from The Guardian to uncover where the world’s plastic waste comes from, and who receives the bulk of these flows.

Top Exporters, Jan-Nov 2018 Top Importers, Jan-Nov 2018 
🇺🇸 United States961,563 tons🇲🇾 Malaysia913,165 tons
🇯🇵 Japan891,719 tons🇹🇭 Thailand471,724 tons
🇩🇪 Germany733,756 tons🇻🇳 Vietnam443,615 tons
🇬🇧 United Kingdom548,256 tons🇭🇰 Hong Kong398,261 tons

The U.S. could fill up 68,000 shipping containers with its annual plastic waste exports. Put another way, 6,000 blue whales would weigh less than this nearly one million tons of waste exports.

Given the amount of plastic which ends up in our oceans, this comparison is just cause for alarm. But one interesting thing to note is that overall totals have halved since 2016:

  • Top 21 total exports (Jan-Nov 2016): 11,342,439 tons
  • Top 21 total exports (Jan-Nov 2018): 5,828,257 tons
  • Percentage change (2016 to 2018): -49%

The world didn’t suddenly stop producing plastic waste overnight. So what caused the decline?

China Cuts Ties with International Plastic Imports

Over recent years, the trajectory of plastic exports has mimicked the movement of plastic waste into China, including the steep plummet that starts in 2018. After being the world’s dumping ground for decades, China enacted a new policy, dubbed “National Sword”, to ban foreign recyclables. The ban, which includes plastics, has left the world scrambling to find other outlets for its waste.

In response, top exporters quickly turned to other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand.

That didn’t completely stop plastic waste from seeping through, though. China previously imported 600,000 tons of plastic monthly, but since the policy only restricted 24 types of solid waste, 30,000 tons per month still entered the country post-ban, primarily from these countries:

  • 🇮🇩 Indonesia: 7,000 tons per month
  • 🇲🇾 Malaysia: 6,000 tons per month
  • 🇺🇸 United States: 5,500 tons per month
  • 🇯🇵 Japan: 4,000 tons per month

Many countries bearing the load of the world’s garbage are planning to follow in China’s footsteps and issue embargoes of their own. What does that mean for the future?

Recycle and Reuse; But Above All, Reduce

The immense amounts of plastic waste sent overseas include recycled and recyclable materials. That’s because most countries don’t have the means to manage their recycling properly, contrary to public belief. What is being done to mitigate waste in the future?

  1. Improve domestic recycling
    Waste Management is the largest recycling company in the United States. In 2018, it put $110 million towards building more plastic recycling infrastructure.
    Meanwhile, tech giant Amazon invested $10 million in a fund that creates recycling infrastructure and services in different cities.
  2. Reduce single-use plastics
    Recycling on its own may not be enough, which is why countries are thinking bigger to cut down on “throwaway” culture.
    The European Union passed a directive to ban disposable plastics and polystyrene “clamshell” containers, among other items, by 2021. More recently, California passed an ambitious bill to phase out single-use plastics by 2030.

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Environment

Visualizing the Scale of Plastic Bottle Waste Against Major Landmarks

Today’s stunning visualization depicts the incredible scale of plastic bottle waste accumulated globally in each hour, day, month, year, and decade.

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One Decade of Plastic Waste

Visualizing the Scale of Plastic Bottle Waste

By the time you’re finished reading this sentence, tens of thousands of plastic bottles will have been sold around the world.

The ubiquitous plastic bottle has proven to be a versatile and cost-effective vessel for everything from water to household cleaning products. Despite this undeniable utility, it’s becoming harder to ignore the sheer volume of waste created by the world’s 7.5 billion people.

Today’s data visualization from Simon Scarr and Marco Hernandez at Reuters Graphics puts into perspective the immense scale of plastic bottle waste by comparing it to recognizable global landmarks, and even the entirety of Manhattan.

Plastic Wasted in One Hour

One Hour of Plastic Bottles

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

Every hour, close to 55 million bottles are discarded worldwide. When accumulated, the pile would be higher than the Brazilian Art Deco statue, Christ the Redeemer.

Towering over Rio de Janeiro at 125 feet (38 meters) and with arms outstretched to 98ft (30m), the statue still pales in comparison next to the combined plastic bottle waste over this time period.

Plastic Bottle Waste: Daily and Monthly

One Day of Plastic Bottles

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

In the span of a day, over 1.3 billion bottles are discarded. If you were to take the elevator up the Eiffel Tower (which has a total height of 1,063ft or 324m), you’d reach the tip of this pile about halfway up.

Fast forward this by a month, however, and it’s a different story. The Eiffel Tower seems like a figurine next to a heap of approximately 40 billion tossed plastic bottles.

plastic bottle waste one month

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

Scaling this up, data from Euromonitor International reveals that over 481 billion plastic bottles are now wasted annually.

Accumulated, this would dwarf even Dubai’s famous Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest structure at an impressive 2,722ft (830m).

A Decade of Plastic

According to Reuters, nearly 4 trillion bottles were sold in the past ten years, each contributing to a 7,874ft high pile of plastic (2.4km).

plastic bottles decade

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

If all plastic bottle waste were piled up in this manner, New Yorkers would see a translucent mountain every time they looked out their window rising to over half the elevation of the tallest peak in the Rocky Mountains, which is 14,440ft (4.4km) high.

The Global Flow of Plastic Waste Since 1950

Plastic bottles are just the tip of the iceberg for single-use plastics. Other examples include plastic bags, food packaging, coffee cup lids, and straws. As plastic use continues to flourish, even our best attempts at managing waste are falling short.

In fact, only an abysmal 6% of all plastic produced since 1950 has been recycled, with the majority ending up in landfills as litter, or getting incinerated.

Global Plastic Consumption Flow

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

Our plastic use is on an unsustainable trajectory, but countries are taking specific actions to curb use. Canada and the European Union (EU) will ban certain single-use plastics by 2021—and they are among 60 other nations enacting similar policies.

Corporations are also taking steps to reduce impact. A good example of this is Unilever, which made a commitment to make all its packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

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Agriculture

An Investing Megatrend: How Climate Change and Resource Scarcity are Shaping the Future

Learn how climate change and resource scarcity are affecting our most basic needs, and how investors can take advantage of this growing megatrend.

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climate change and resource scarcity

If you’ve ever played with dominos, you’re familiar with their cascading effects. Gently nudge one piece, and the force will ripple throughout the rest.

This process of cause and effect works much the same way in society and business: as global forces take hold, their effects are deeply intertwined with the financial markets.

The Climate Megatrend

Today’s infographic comes from BlackRock, and it explains how one such megatrend, climate change and resource scarcity, will be a long-term opportunity for investors.

Climate Change and Resource Scarcity

Earth in the Hot Seat

In 2018, global CO2 emissions rose 1.7% to the highest level since 2013. These rising emissions have intensified the effects of climate change, with 2015-2018 being the four hottest years ever recorded. Society and the economy are starting to feel its negative consequences:

  • Extreme weather events have become more frequent. In particular, floods and other hydrological events have quadrupled since 1980.
  • In hotter, wetter conditions, infectious diseases spread more easily—between 2004-2017, total tick-borne illnesses increased by 163%.
  • The global insured losses from natural catastrophes was $79 billion in 2018.
  • Extreme weather effects, and the health impact of burning fossil fuels, cost the U.S. economy at least $240 billion in 2018.

It’s clear that climate change is having an immediate, serious impact on the world.

Many see climate change as a long-dated future risk, however, our research findings show that compared to the 1980’s, there are measurable GDP impacts in the market today

-Brian Deese, Global Head of Sustainable Investing at BlackRock

In addition to these issues, climate change is contributing to another problem: it’s becoming harder to feed the global population.

Over 7 Billion Mouths to Feed

Climate change significantly threatens global food security. As glaciers melt, the world’s freshwater supply—including what’s available for food production—melts with it. This is a significant problem, considering that between 2,000-5,000 liters of fresh water are needed to produce one person’s daily food intake.

As an added hurdle to food production, supply and demand are pulling in opposite directions.

The share of total employment in agriculture has dropped significantly over time. Even worse, among the food that is able to be harvested, roughly 30% is lost or wasted globally.

On top of limited resources, the world will have to contend with forces driving up food demand.

  • Population growth: By 2050, the global population will grow by about two billion.
  • More calorie-rich diets: As emerging economies grow their wealth, their populations seek richer foods like meat and dairy products.

How can society combat these pressing issues?

A Greener, More Plentiful Future

As society works to slow climate change and produce more with less, a myriad of investment opportunities will emerge.

  • Renewable energies are becoming increasingly competitive.
  • Electric & fuel cell vehicles are growing in market share.
  • Products made from recycled materials are appealing to environmentally-conscious consumers.
  • Agricultural machinery counters the declining workforce and increases productivity.
  • Precision agriculture leverages real-time environmental data to help farmers make decisions.

Climate change and resource scarcity will be a driving force behind the actions of consumers, companies, and governments for years to come.

By staying attuned to this megatrend, investors will be able to spot long-term opportunities.

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