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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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Which Countries are Mapping the Ocean Floor?

We know more about the surface of Mars than we do on the ocean floor. Which countries are mapping the ocean floor, and what’s still unknown?

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mapping the ocean floor

Which Countries are Mapping the Ocean Floor?

Our vast and complex planet is becoming less mysterious with each passing day.

Consider the following:

  • Thousands of satellites are now observing every facet of our planet
  • Around three-quarters of Earth’s land surface is now influenced by human activity
  • Aircraft-based LIDAR mapping is creating new models of the physical world in staggering detail

But, despite all of these impressive advances, our collective knowledge of the ocean floor still has some surprising blind spots.

Today’s unique map from cartographer Andrew Douglas-Clifford (aka The Map Kiwi) focuses on ocean territory instead of land, highlighting the vast areas of the ocean floor that remain unmapped. Which countries are exploring their offshore territory, and how much of the ocean floor still remains a mystery to us? Let’s dive in.

What Do We Know Right Now?

Today, we have a surprisingly incomplete picture of what lies beneath the waves. In fact, if you were to fly from Los Angeles to Sydney, the bulk of your journey would take place over territory that is mapped in only the broadest sense.

Most of what we know about the ocean floor’s topography was pieced together from gravity data gathered by satellites. While useful as a starting point, the resulting spatial resolution is about two square miles (5km). By comparison, topographic maps of Mars and Venus have a resolution that’s 50x more detailed.

As the map above clearly illustrates, only a few large pieces of the ocean have been mapped—and not surprisingly, many of these higher resolution portions lie along the world’s shipping lanes.

Another way to see this clear difference in resolution is through Google Maps:

As you can see above, these shipping lanes running through the Pacific Ocean have been mapped at a higher resolution that the surrounding ocean floor.

The Countries Mapping the Ocean Floor

The closer an area is to a population center, the higher the likelihood it has been mapped. That said, many countries still have a long way to go before they have a clear picture of their land beneath the waves.

Here is a snapshot of how far along countries are in their subsea mapping efforts:

Countries/territoriesSize of Exclusive Economic Zone* (EEZ)Percentage of EEZ mapped
Japan1,729,501 mi² (4,479,388 km²)97.7%
United Kingdom2,627,651 mi² (6,805,586 km²)90.6%
Norway920,922 mi² (2,385,178 km²)81.9%
New Zealand1,576,742 mi² (4,083,744 km²)74.0%
United States4,382,645 mi² (11,351,000 km²)69.9%
Australia3,283,933 mi² (8,505,348 km²)64.9%
Iceland291,121 mi² (754,000 km²)49.9%
South Africa592,874 mi² (1,535,538 km²)39.5%
Canada2,161,815 mi² (5,599,077 km²)38.8%
Samoa49,401 mi² (127,950 km²)34.6%
South Korea183,579 mi² (475,469 km²)28.3%
Taiwan32,135 mi² (83,231 km²)26.3%
Argentina447,516 mi² (1,159,063 km²)22.6%
Cook Islands756,770 mi² (1,960,027 km²)29.0%
Phillippines614,203 mi² (1,590,780 km²)16.7%
China338,618 mi² (877,019 km²)11.4%
Madagascar473,075 mi² (1,225,259 km²)5.5%
Bangladesh45,873 mi² (118,813 km²)3.3%
Thailand115,597 mi² (299,397 km²)1.5%

*An exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is the sea zone stretching 200 nautical miles (nmi) from the coast of a state.

Japan and the UK, which have the 5th and 8th largest EEZs respectively, are the clear leaders in mapping their ocean territory.

Piecing Together the Puzzle

Sometimes tragedy can have a silver lining. By the time the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 concluded in 2014, scientists had gained access to more than 100,000 square miles of newly mapped sections of the Indian Ocean.

Of course, it will take a more systematic approach and sustained effort to truly map the world’s ocean floors. Thankfully, a project called Seabed 2030 has the ambitious goal of mapping the entire ocean floor by 2030. The organization is collaborating with existing mapping initiatives in various regions to compile bathymetric information (undersea map data).

It’s been said without hyperbole that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about our own planet’s seabed, but thanks to the efforts of Seabed 2030 and other initiatives around the world, puzzle pieces are finally falling into place.

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Visualizing the Biggest Threats to Earth’s Biodiversity

Earth’s biodiversity has seen a massive decrease over the years. What’s driving this loss, and which regions have been impacted the most?

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The Biggest Threats to Earth’s Biodiversity

Biodiversity benefits humanity in many ways.

It helps make the global economy more resilient, it functions as an integral part of our culture and identity, and research has shown it’s even linked to our physical health.

However, despite its importance, Earth’s biodiversity has decreased significantly over the last few decades. In fact, between 1970 and 2016, the population of vertebrate species fell by 68% on average worldwide. What’s causing this global decline?

Today’s graphic uses data from WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020 to illustrate the biggest threats to Earth’s biodiversity, and the impact each threat has had globally.

Measuring the Loss of Biodiversity

Before looking at biodiversity’s biggest threats, first thing’s first—how exactly has biodiversity changed over the years?

WWF uses the Living Planet Index (LPI) to measure biodiversity worldwide. Using data from over 4,000 different species, LPI tracks the abundance of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians across the globe.

Here’s a look at each region’s average decline between 1970 and 2016:

RankRegionAverage decline (between 1970 and 2016)
1Latin America & Caribbean94%
2Africa65%
3Asia Pacific45%
4North America33%
5Europe and Central Asia24%

Latin America & Caribbean has seen the biggest drop in biodiversity at 94%. This region’s drastic decline has been mainly driven by declining reptile, amphibian, and fish populations.

Despite varying rates of loss between regions, it’s clear that overall, biodiversity is on the decline. What main factors are driving this loss, and how do these threats differ from region to region?

Biggest Threats to Biodiversity, Overall

While it’s challenging to create an exhaustive list, WWF has identified five major threats and shown each threats proportional impact, averaged across all regions:

ThreatProportion of threat (average across all regions)
Changes in land and sea use50%
Species overexploitation24%
Invasive species and disease13%
Pollution7%
Climate Change6%

Across the board, changes in land and sea use account for the largest portion of loss, making up 50% of recorded threats to biodiversity on average. This makes sense, considering that approximately one acre of the Earth’s rainforests is disappearing every two seconds.

Species overexploitation is the second biggest threat at 24% on average, while invasive species takes the third spot at 13%.

Biggest Threats to Biodiversity, By Region

When looking at the regional breakdown, the order of threats in terms of biodiversity impact is relatively consistent across all regions—however, there are a few discrepancies:

In Latin America and Caribbean, climate change has been a bigger biodiversity threat than in other regions, and this is possibly linked to an increase in natural disasters. Between 2000 and 2013, the region experienced 613 extreme climate and hydro-meteorological events, from typhoons and hurricanes to flash floods and droughts.

Another notable variation from the mean is species over-exploitation in Africa, which makes up 35% of the region’s threats. This is higher than in other regions, which sit around 18-27%.

While the regional breakdowns differ slightly from place to place, one thing remains constant across the board—all species, no matter how small, play an important role in the maintenance of Earth’s ecosystems.

Will we continue to see a steady decline in Earth’s biodiversity, or will things level out in the near future?

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