Mapping the Flow of the World’s Plastic Waste
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 States||961,563 tons||🇲🇾 Malaysia||913,165 tons|
|🇯🇵 Japan||891,719 tons||🇹🇭 Thailand||471,724 tons|
|🇩🇪 Germany||733,756 tons||🇻🇳 Vietnam||443,615 tons|
|🇬🇧 United Kingdom||548,256 tons||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||398,261 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?
- 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.
- 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.
Here’s Why the Amazon is So Important for Global Food Security
The Amazon rainforest plays a critical role in supporting crop growth by stabilizing the climate and balancing water cycles.
Why is the Amazon Rainforest Important for Food Security?
The Amazon rainforest is home to 400 billion trees and covers 6.7 million square kilometers, but the ‘Earth’s lungs’, as it is commonly referred to, is so much more than that.
Aside from being a key carbon sink, it also plays a critical role in supporting crop growth by stabilizing the climate and balancing water cycles.
In this infographic, our sponsor Brazil Potash looks at how the Amazon regulates rainfall and temperature and how crop yields can be optimized. Let’s dive in.
Rainfall as a Primary Water Source
“Flying rivers” are air currents that carry enormous amounts of water vapor over thousands of kilometers. These airborne rivers are responsible for influencing regional and global weather patterns, including rainfall.
The Amazon flying river cycle begins with water evaporating from the Atlantic Ocean. Wind currents then transport these vapors across the continent, exchanging moisture with the Amazon rainforest through evapotranspiration. Finally, these aerial rivers distribute the moisture as rain.
The trees in the Amazon rainforest release around 20 billion tonnes of water into the atmosphere daily—this is more water than the Mississippi River discharges in 13 months.
Because only around 6% of cropland in Brazil is irrigated, the region relies heavily on this rainfall as a primary water source to support crop growth that feeds both local and global communities.
The Amazon also absorbs billions of tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year through photosynthesis. By absorbing this CO2, it helps regulate temperatures and lessen the effects of climate change.
According to NASA research, the cumulative effects of climate change, accelerated by deforestation, may result in the loss of up to 11 million hectares of agricultural land in Brazil by the 2030s.
The continued sustainable production of Brazil’s crops is essential to food security, but deforestation can harm these efforts.
How to Grow More With Less
Brazil hosts the largest section of the Amazon rainforest at around 60%. The country is also one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural goods.
It’s essential for global food security and for climate change that crop yields in Brazil are increased in areas already allocated for agriculture, instead of clearing new areas in the Amazon rainforest.
A recent study highlights a significant yield gap in Brazil’s primary export, soybeans.
A yield gap is the difference between actual crop yield and potential crop yield.
The following steps proposed could optimize land usage:
- Increase crop yields: This can be done in part by optimizing and increasing fertilizer use. Local fertilizer suppliers are essential to this by providing affordable and accessible fertilizer year-round.
- Double Crop: Continuing to grow a second crop of corn on soybean fields between seasons to optimize land usage. Additional fertilizer is essential to maintain the soil’s nutrients after harvests.
- Raise cattle on smaller pastures: By streamlining the space provided for cattle, additional cropland can be added to support food for both people and livestock.
The Role of Brazil Potash
Brazil Potash aims to support the preservation of the Amazon rainforest by working with farmers to increase crop yields and improve the quality and quantity of food grown, without the need for land expansion.
By keeping farmers informed of fertilizer’s benefits and supporting a more stable supply of local fertilizer, Brazil Potash will continue supporting farming communities for generations to come.
Click here to learn more about sustainable crop growth in the Amazon and Brazil Potash.
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