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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

IMO 2020: The Big Shipping Shake-Up

IMO 2020, which sets ambitious emissions limits, is about to shake up maritime shipping. Today’s graphic covers the environmental and economic impacts

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IMO 2020: The Big Shipping Shake-Up

Over 90% of all global trade takes place on our oceans.

Unfortunately, the network of 59,000 vessels powering international commerce runs on sulfur-laden bunker fuel, and resulting emissions are causing problems on dry land.

As today’s infographic by Breakwave Advisors demonstrates, new emissions regulations taking effect in 2020 will have a big impact on the world’s massive fleet of marine shipping vessels.

The Regulatory Impact

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) – the UN agency responsible for ensuring a clean, safe, and efficient global shipping industry – will be implementing new regulations that will have massive impact on maritime shipping.

The regulations, dubbed IMO 2020, will enforce a 0.5% sulfur emissions cap worldwide starting January 1, 2020 ─ a dramatic decrease from the current emissions cap of 3.5%.

Here are a few ways marine fuel will likely be affected by these regulations:

  • High-sulfur fuel oil will drop in price as the demand drops dramatically after January 1, 2020
  • Diesel, a low-sulfur fuel oil, will be in higher demand and should see a price increase
  • Refiners should also expect higher profits as refining runs increase to satisfy the new regulations

The Economic Impact

IMO 2020 will be one of the most dramatic fuel regulation changes ever implemented, with a significant impact on the global economy.

New regulations are certain to influence freight rates ─ the fees charged for delivering cargo from place to place. These rates can fluctuate depending on:

  • Time and distance between ports
  • Weight and density of the cargo
  • Freight classification
  • Mode of transport
  • Tariffs and taxes
  • Fuel costs

Rising fuel costs means rising freight rates, with much of these costs being passed to consumers.

In a full compliance scenario, we estimate the total impact to consumer wallets in 2020 could be around US$240 billion.

─ Goldman Sachs

The Environmental Impact

Not surprisingly, the world’s 59,000 transport ships, oil tankers, and cargo ships have a consequential impact on the environment.

Bunker fuel accounts for 7% of transportation oil consumption (~3.5 million barrels/day). Burning this fuel generates about 90% of all sulfur oxide and dioxide (SOx and SO2) emissions globally. In fact, the world’s 15 largest ships produce more SOx and SO2 emissions than every car combined.

These sulfur emissions can cause several harmful side effects on land ─ acid rain, smog, crop failures, and many respiratory illnesses such as lung cancer and asthma.

Changing Currents in the Shipping Sector

As IMO 2020’s implementation date nears, shippers have a few courses of action to become compliant and manage costs.

1) Switch to low-sulfur fuel

Bunker fuel use in the shipping industry was 3.5 million barrels per day in 2018, representing roughly 5% of global fuel demand.

Annual bunker fuel costs are predicted to rise by US$60 billion in 2020, a nearly 25% increase from 2019. Price increases this significant will directly impact freight rates ─ with no guarantee that fuel will always be available.

2) Slower Travel, Less Capacity

The costs of refining low-sulfur fuel will increase fuel prices. To offset this, shippers often travel at slower speeds.

For example, large ships might burn 280-300 metric tons of high-sulfur fuel oil (HSFO) a day at high speeds, but only 80-90 metric tons a day at slower speeds. Slower travel may cut costs and help reduce emissions, but it also decreases the capacity these vessels can transport due to longer travel times, which shrinks overall profit margins.

3) Refueling Detours

Adequate fuel supply will be a primary concern for shippers once IMO 2020 takes effect. Fuel shortages would cause inefficiencies and increase freight rates even more, as ships would be forced to detour to refuel more often.

4) Installing Scrubbers

A loophole of IMO 2020 is that emissions are regulated, not the actual sulfur content of fuel itself.

Rather than burning more expensive fuel, many shippers may decide to “capture” sulfur before it enters the environment by using scrubbers, devices that transfer sulfur emissions from exhaust to a disposal unit and discharges the emissions.

With IMO 2020 looming, only 1% of the global shipping fleet has been retrofitted with scrubbers. Forecasts for scrubber installations by mid-2020 run close to 5% of the current ships on the water.

There are a few reasons for such low numbers of installations. First, scrubbers are still somewhat unproven in maritime applications, so shippers are taking a “wait and see” approach. As well, even if a ship does qualify for a retrofit, cost savings won’t take effect until several years after installation. On the plus side, ships with scrubbers installed will still be able to use the existing, widely-available supply of bunker fuel.

Moving Forward

No matter which route shippers choose to take, the short-term impact is almost certainly going to mean higher freight rates for the marine shipping industry.

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Chart of the Week

All the World’s Carbon Emissions in One Chart

Just 15 countries are responsible for almost three quarters of the world’s carbon emissions. But what does this look like per capita, and over time?

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All the World’s Carbon Emissions in One Chart

Two degrees Celsius may not seem like much, but on our planet, it could be the difference between thriving life and a disastrous climate.

Over two centuries of burning fossil fuels have added up, and global decision-makers and business leaders are focusing in on carbon emissions as a key issue.

Emissions by Country

This week’s chart uses the most recent data from Global Carbon Atlas to demonstrate where most of the world’s CO₂ emissions come from, sorted by country.

RankCountryEmissions in 2017 (MtCO₂)% of Global Emissions
🌐 Rest of World10,02827.7%
#1🇨🇳 China9,83927.2%
#2🇺🇸 United States5,26914.6%
#3🇮🇳 India2,4676.8%
#4🇷🇺 Russia1,6934.7%
#5🇯🇵 Japan1,2053.3%
#6🇩🇪 Germany7992.2%
#7🇮🇷 Iran6721.9%
#8🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia6351.8%
#9🇰🇷 South Korea6161.7%
#10🇨🇦 Canada5731.6%
#11🇲🇽 Mexico4901.4%
#12🇮🇩 Indonesia4871.3%
#13🇧🇷 Brazil4761.3%
#14🇿🇦 South Africa4561.3%
#15🇹🇷 Turkey4481.2%
🌐 Top 1526,12572.2%

In terms of absolute emissions, the heavy hitters are immediately obvious. Large economies such as China, the United States, and India alone account for almost half the world’s emissions. Zoom out a little further, and it’s even clearer that just a handful of countries are responsible for the majority of emissions.

Of course, absolute emissions don’t tell the full story. The world is home to over 7.5 billion people, but they aren’t distributed evenly across the globe. How do these carbon emissions shake out on a per capita basis?

Here are the 20 countries with the highest emissions per capita:

Emissions per capita
Source: Global Carbon Atlas. Note: We’ve only included places with a population above one million, which excludes islands and areas such as Curaçao, Brunei, Luxembourg, Iceland, Greenland, and Bermuda.

Out of the original 30 countries in the main visualization, six countries show up again as top CO₂ emitters when adjusted for population count: Saudi Arabia, the United States, Canada, South Korea, Russia, and Germany.

The CO₂ Conundrum

We know that rapid urbanization and industrialization have had an impact on carbon emissions entering the atmosphere, but at what rate?

Climate data scientist Neil Kaye answers the question from a different perspective, by mapping what percentage of emissions have been created during your lifetime since the Industrial Revolution:

Your Age% of Total Global Emissions
15 years oldYou've been alive for more than 30% of emissions
30 years oldYou've been alive for more than 50% of emissions
85 years oldYou've been alive for more than 90% of emissions

Put another way, the running total of emissions is growing at an accelerating rate. This is best seen in the dramatic shortening between the time periods taken for 400 billion tonnes of CO₂ to enter the atmosphere:

  • First period: 217 years (1751 to 1967)
  • Second period: 23 years (1968 to 1990)
  • Third period: 16 years (1991 to 2006)
  • Fourth period: 11 years (2007 to 2018)

In order to be a decarbonised economy by 2050, we have to bend the (emissions) curve by 2020… Not only is it urgent and necessary, but actually we are very nicely on our way to achieving it.

Christiana Figueres, Convenor of Mission 2020

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