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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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Energy

Mapped: The World’s Nuclear Reactor Landscape

Which countries are turning to nuclear energy, and which are turning away? Mapping and breaking down the world’s nuclear reactor landscape.

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The World’s Changing Nuclear Reactor Landscape

View a more detailed version of the above map by clicking here

Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the most severe nuclear accident since Chernobyl, many nations reiterated their intent to wean off the energy source.

However, this sentiment is anything but universal—in many other regions of the world, nuclear power is still ramping up, and it’s expected to be a key energy source for decades to come.

Using data from the Power Reactor Information System, maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the map above gives a comprehensive look at where nuclear reactors are subsiding, and where future capacity will reside.

Increasing Global Nuclear Use

Despite a dip in total capacity and active reactors last year, nuclear power still generated around 10% of the world’s electricity in 2019.

Global Nuclear Reactors and Electrical Capacity

Part of the increased capacity came as Japan restarted some plants and European countries looked to replace aging reactors. But most of the growth is driven by new reactors coming online in Asia and the Middle East.

China is soon to have more than 50 nuclear reactors, while India is set to become a top-ten producer once construction on new reactors is complete.

Asia's Growing Nuclear Footprint

Decreasing Use in Western Europe and North America

The slight downtrend from 450 operating reactors in 2018 to 443 in 2019 was the result of continued shutdowns in Europe and North America. Home to the majority of the world’s reactors, the two continents also have the oldest reactors, with many being retired.

At the same time, European countries are leading the charge in reducing dependency on the energy source. Germany has pledged to close all nuclear plants by 2022, and Italy has already become the first country to completely shut down their plants.

Despite leading in shutdowns, Europe still emerges as the most nuclear-reliant region for a majority of electricity production and consumption.

world-nuclear-landscape-supplemental-3

In addition, some countries are starting to reassess nuclear energy as a means of fighting climate change. Reactors don’t produce greenhouse gases during operation, and are more efficient (and safer) than wind and solar per unit of electricity.

Facing steep emission reduction requirements, a variety of countries are looking to expand nuclear capacity or to begin planning for their first reactors.

A New Generation of Nuclear Reactors?

For those parties interested in the benefits of nuclear power, past accidents have also led towards a push for innovation in the field. That includes studies of miniature nuclear reactors that are easier to manage, as well as full-size reactors with robust redundancy measures that won’t physically melt down.

Additionally, some reactors are being designed with the intention of utilizing accumulated nuclear waste—a byproduct of nuclear energy and weapon production that often had to be stored indefinitely—as a fuel source.

With some regions aiming to reduce reliance on nuclear power, and others starting to embrace it, the landscape is certain to change.

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How China’s Plastics Ban Threw Global Recycling into Disarray

For decades, developed countries outsourced their recyclables to China. Now, they’re on their own, and a multi-billion dollar opportunity has emerged.

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Global Recycling: Reinventing a Broken System

First developed in the 20th century, plastics have become ubiquitous in our daily lives. Found in everything from food packaging to medical devices, this extremely versatile and cost-effective material has undoubtedly made our lives more convenient.

This convenience comes at a cost, however, and experts warn that plastics’ inability to biodegrade is taking a toll on the planet. To make matters worse, recycling infrastructure around the world is severely underdeveloped.

In this infographic from Swissquote, we recount the end of “easy” recycling, and examine the struggles that many countries are facing as they scale up their domestic capabilities.

The Single-Supplier Global Recycling Model

Since the early 1990s, developed countries have avoided the environmental costs of plastic by outsourcing their recycling to the developing world—more specifically, China.

At the time, this arrangement benefited both parties. On one hand, it was cheaper for developed countries to export their plastic waste rather than process it domestically. China, on the other hand, needed vast amounts of raw materials to fuel its burgeoning manufacturing industries. It also meant that Chinese container ships, which regularly delivered goods to countries like the U.S., would no longer return home empty-handed.

A system that relies heavily on one country can only handle so much, however, and by 2016 China was importing 7 million tonnes of recyclables and waste per year. To make matters worse, plastics production kept growing at a faster rate than the global population:

YearGrowth in Global Plastics Production (%)Growth in World Population (%)
20133.821.19
20144.011.17
20153.541.16
20164.041.14
20173.881.12
20183.161.1

Source: PlasticsEurope, Worldometer

It was clear that this system would soon reach its tipping point, especially with the Chinese government largely committed to going green.

National Sword Policy

China’s solution to cutting down plastic imports was the National Sword policy, which at the start of 2018, implemented an import ban on 24 types of recyclables. The ban was extremely effective—plastic exports to China fell from 581,000 tonnes in February of 2017 to just 23,900 tonnes a year later.

All of this plastic did not simply disappear, though. Plastic-exporting countries scrambled for alternatives, and in some cases, diverted their shipments to nearby countries in Southeast Asia. Governments in the region were quick to respond, either refusing shipments or implementing bans of their own.

Richer countries are taking advantage of the looser regulations in poorer countries. They export the trash here because it’s more expensive for them to process [it] themselves back home due to the tighter laws.

—Lea Guerrero, Greenpeace Philippines

In one noteworthy case, Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, threatened to wage war on Canada if it did not take back its shipments of waste. An official later clarified this threat was not to be taken literally.

The End of “Easy” Recycling

Western countries tend to produce more plastics per capita than other countries, but are ill-prepared to begin processing their own plastic waste in a sustainable manner. One critical issue arises from their predominant method of recycling known as single-stream recycling.

Under this method, consumers place all of their recyclables into a single bin. This mixture of cardboard, plastics, and glass is then brought to a material recovery facility (MRF) to be sorted and processed. While this method makes it easier for consumers to recycle, it suffers from two weaknesses:

  1. Contamination: Mixing plastics, chemicals, and food waste adds extra costs to the recycling process. On average, one in four items that arrive at an MRF are too contaminated to be recycled.
  2. Sorting inefficiency: MRFs have a difficult time sorting through the wide variety of materials being placed into bins. Approximately one in six bottles and one in three cans are sorted incorrectly.

With outsourcing no longer an option, MRFs across the U.S. are now dealing with significantly larger volumes. To boost their capacity, some facilities have implemented artificial intelligence (AI) empowered robots that can sort items significantly faster than humans. An added bonus to reducing the human workforce is safety⁠—MRFs frequently have some of the industry’s highest injury and illness incidence rates.

Investing in Domestic Solutions

China’s ban on foreign plastics has exposed the frailty of a single-supplier global recycling model, and is forcing many countries to begin developing their domestic infrastructure.

One emerging leader in this space is the EU, which has passed ambitious legislation to promote recycling industry investment. Recognizing the unsustainability of single-use plastics, the EU has mandated its member states to achieve a 90% collection rate for plastic bottles by 2029. It’s also set a target for all plastic packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2030, an initiative that could create up to 200,000 new jobs.

Aside from the environmental benefits, the global recycling industry could also be a source of economic growth. It’s estimated that between 2018 and 2024 that it will grow at a CAGR of 8.6% to reach $63 billion.

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