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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

How Much Solar Energy is Consumed Per Capita? (1965-2019)

This visualization highlights the growth in solar energy consumption per capita over 54 years. Which countries are leading the way?

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How Much Solar Energy is Consumed Per Capita?

The long history of solar energy use dates as far back as 4,000 B.C.—when ancient civilizations would use solar architecture to design dwellings that would use more of the sun’s warmth in the winter, while reducing excess heat in the summer.

But despite its long history, we’ve only recently started to rely on solar energy as a renewable power source. This Our World in Data visualization pulls data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy to highlight how solar energy consumption per capita has grown in countries around the world over 54 years.

Solar Success: The Top Consumers Per Capita

Solar energy consumption is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh)—and as of the latest estimates, Australia leads the world in terms of highest solar energy consumption per capita at 1,764 kWh in 2019. A combination of factors help achieve this:

  • Optimal weather conditions
  • High gross domestic product (GDP) per capita
  • Tariffs incentivizing the shift to solar

In fact, government subsidies such as financial assistance with installation and feed-in tariffs help bring down the costs of residential solar systems to a mere AUD$1 (US$0.70) per watt.

RankCountrySolar consumption per capita
(kWh, 2019)
Solar’s share of total
(per capita consumption)
#1🇦🇺 Australia1,7642.50%
#2🇯🇵 Japan1,4693.59%
#3🇩🇪 Germany1,4093.22%
#4🇦🇪 UAE1,0560.77%
#5🇮🇹 Italy9953.40%
#6🇬🇷 Greece9363.08%
#7🇧🇪 Belgium8471.30%
#8🇨🇱 Chile8233.39%
#9🇺🇸 U.S.8151.02%
#10🇪🇸 Spain7972.34%

Source: Our World in Data, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2020
Note that some conversions have been made for primary energy consumption values from Gigajoules (GJ) to kWh.

Coming in second place, Japan has the highest share of solar (3.59%) compared to its total primary energy consumption per capita. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, the nation made plans to double its renewable energy use by 2030.

Japan has achieved its present high rates of solar energy use through creative means, from repurposing abandoned golf courses to building floating “solar islands”.

Solar Laggards: The Bottom Consumers Per Capita

On the flip side, several countries that lag behind on solar use are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. These include several members of OPEC—Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela—and former member state Indonesia.

This reliance may also explain why, despite being located in regions that receive the most annual “sunshine hours” in the world, this significant solar potential is yet unrealized.

RankCountrySolar consumption
per capita (kWh, 2019)
Primary energy consumption
per capita (kWh, 2019)
#1🇮🇸 Iceland0No data available
#2🇱🇻 Latvia0No data available
#3🇮🇩 Indonesia<19,140
#4🇺🇿 Uzbekistan<115,029
#5🇭🇰 Hong Kong<146,365
#6🇻🇪 Venezuela121,696
#7🇴🇲 Oman284,535
#8🇹🇲 Turkmenistan367,672
#9🇮🇶 Iraq415,723
#10🇮🇷 Iran541,364

Source: Our World in Data, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2020
Note that some conversions have been made for primary energy consumption values from Gigajoules (GJ) to kWh.

Interestingly, Iceland is on this list for a different reason. Although the country still relies on renewable energy, it gets this from different sources than solar—a significant share comes from hydropower as well as geothermal power.

The Future of Solar

One thing the visualization above makes clear is that solar’s impact on the global energy mix has only just begun. As the costs associated with producing solar power continue to fall, we’re on a steady track to transform solar energy into a more significant means of generating power.

All in all, with the world’s projected energy mix from total renewables set to increase over 300% by 2040, solar energy is on a rising trend upwards.

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Green

Visualized: Historical Trends in Global Monthly Surface Temperatures (1851-2020)

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Global Temperature Graph (1851-2020)

View the high-resolution of the infographic by clicking here.

Since 1880, the Earth’s average surface temperature has risen by 0.07°C (0.13°F) every decade. That number alone may seem negligible, but over time, it adds up.

In addition, the rate of temperature change has grown significantly more dramatic over time—more than doubling to 0.18°C (0.32°F) since 1981. As a result of this global warming process, environmental crises have become the most prominent risks of our time.

In this global temperature graph, climate data scientist Neil R. Kaye breaks down how monthly average temperatures have changed over nearly 170 years. Temperature values have been benchmarked against pre-industrial averages (1850–1900).

What is Causing Global Warming?

The data visualization can be thought of in two halves, each reflecting significant trigger points in global warming trends:

  • 1851-1935
    Overlaps with the Second Industrial Revolution
    Low-High range in global temperature increase: -0.4°C to +0.6°C
  • 1936-2020
    Overlaps with the Third Industrial Revolution
    Low-High range in global temperature increase: +0.6°C to +1.5°C and up

The global temperature graph makes it clear that for several years now, average surface temperatures have consistently surpassed 1.5°C above their pre-industrial values. Let’s dig into these time periods a bit more closely to uncover more context around this phenomenon.

Industrial Revolutions and Advances, 1851–1935

An obvious, early anomaly on the visual worth exploring occurs between 1877–1878. During this time, the world experienced numerous unprecedented climate events, from a strong El Niño to widespread droughts. The resulting Great Famine caused the deaths of between 19–50 million people, even surpassing some of the deadliest pandemics in history.

In the first five rows of the global temperature graph, several economies progressed into the Second Industrial Revolution (~1870–1914), followed by World War I (1914-1918). Overall, there was a focus on steel production and mass-produced consumer goods over these 80+ years.

Although these technological advances brought immense improvements, they came at the cost of burning fossil fuels—releasing significant amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It would take several more decades before scientists realized the full extent of their accumulation in the atmosphere, and their resulting relation to global warming.

The Modern World In the Red Zone, 1936–2020

The second half of the global temperature graph is marked by World War II (1939-1945) and its aftermath. As the dust settled, nations began to build themselves back up, and things really kicked into hyperdrive with the Third Industrial Revolution.

As globalization and trade progressed following the 1950s, people and goods began moving around more than ever before. In addition, population growth peaked at 2.1% per year between 1965 and 1970. Industrialization patterns began to intensify further to meet the demands of a rising global population and our modern world.

The Importance of Historical Temperature Trends

The history of human development is intricately linked with global warming. While part of the rise in Earth’s surface temperature can be attributed to natural patterns of climate change, these historical trends shed some light on how much human activities are behind the rapid increase in global average temperatures in the last 85 years.

The following video from Reddit user bgregory98, which leverages an extensive data set published in Nature Geoscience provides a more dramatic demonstration. It looks at the escalation of global temperatures over two thousand years. In this expansive time frame, eight of the top ten hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade alone.

Global warming and climate change are some of the most pressing megatrends shaping our future. However, with the U.S. rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, and the reduction of global carbon emissions highlighted as a key item at the World Economic Forum’s Davos Summit 2021, promising steps are being taken.

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