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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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Cities

World Cities Ranked by Average Annual Sunshine Hours

While we all see the same sky, some see it differently, depending on where they live. Today’s graphic ranks world cities by annual hours of sunshine.

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Visualizing the Most and Least Sunshine Hours per Continent

World Cities Ranked by Average Annual Sunshine Hours

View the high resolution of this infographic by clicking here

While we all see the same sky, we see it a bit differently depending on where we stand.

For those in the planet’s most extreme regions, the sun doesn’t follow the same pattern of seasons as it does in more temperate regions.

Today’s visualization comes from Sleepopolis and summarizes the top cities on each continent that receive the most and least annual sunshine hours.

Ranked: Cities with the Least and Most Sunshine Hours

While the graphic groups the top five cities from each continent, the tables below highlight the top 10 cities from around the world that boast the highest and lowest annual sunshine hours.

Top 10 Cities with the Most Annual Sunshine

CityCountryClimate# of Sunshine Hours
YumaUnited StatesArid4,015.3
Marsa AlamEgyptArid3,958.0
Dakhla OasisEgyptArid3,943.4
CalamaChileArid, Marine West Coast, Tundra3,926.2
PhoenixUnited StatesArid3,871.6
KeetmanshoopNamibiaArid3,870.0
Las VegasUnited StatesArid3,825.3
TucsonUnited StatesArid3,806.0
KhargaEgyptArid3,790.8
El PasoUnited StatesSemiarid3,762.5

The sunniest city on Earth is Yuma, Arizona in the U.S. As the driest city in the U.S., Yuma receives less than 200 millimeters (8 inches) of rainfall and endures roughly 100 days of 40°C (104°F) weather every year. Yuma lies between the Gila and Colorado rivers, in a lush region that produces almost 90% of leafy vegetables grown in the U.S.

Arizona boasts three of the top 10 sunniest cities in the world, including Phoenix in the fifth spot, which is the 5th most populous city in the U.S. and is known as “the Valley of the Sun”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Egypt also has three cities in the top 10 list, with Marsa Alam, Dakhla Oasis, and Kharga claiming the 2nd, 3rd, and 9th sunniest spots, respectively. Dakhla Oasis, or “inner oasis”, receives practically zero precipitation each year.

Top 10 Cities with the Least Annual Sunshine

CityCountryClimate# of Sunshine Hours
TotoróColombiaMarine West Coast637.0
TórshavnFaroe IslandsMarine West Coast840.0
ChongqingChinaHumid Subtropical954.8
DiksonRussiaTundra1,164.3
MalaboEquatorial GuineaTropical Wet and Dry1,176.7
BuenaventuraColombiaTropical Wet and Dry, Humid Subtropical1,178.0
LimaPeruArid1,230.0
UshuaiaArgentinaTundra1,281.2
ReykjavikIcelandTundra, Marine West Coast1,326.0
BogotáColombiaMarine West Coast1,328.0

Although perceived as a sunny location, Colombia borders both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, exposing it to higher variety in weather patterns and precipitation. Colombia alone is home to three of the top 10 cities with the lowest hours of annual sunshine.

Ranking second-to-last in the number of sunshine hours, Torshavn lies between the Scottish coast and Iceland and receives roughly 37 days of sunshine every year; the average temperatures on this island barely reach above 5°C (41°F).

Our sun doesn’t shine at the same level of brightness all the time. NASA has observed that the sun goes through “solar cycles” that last roughly 11 years─brightening and dimming at relatively regular intervals and impacting how intensely we receive sunlight at any given time.

Sunshine Near the Poles

Humans typically need exposure to the sun to maintain healthy sleep habits, as our brain has been hardwired to follow natural waking and sleeping rhythms.

However, several cities experience no sun at all for several months at a time in what’s known as the “Polar Night”.

  • Tromsø, Norway: winter darkness is enjoyed rather than endured, as it can last for over a month
  • Svalbard, Norway: even indirect sunlight is absent, with no change in sunlight to help indicate a 24-hour day
  • Dikson, Russia: receives no sunlight whatsoever in December

Wherever you live, people have been watching and tracking the movements of the sun with rapt attention for millennia, even when we couldn’t see it.

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Chart of the Week

Which Companies Are Responsible For the Most Carbon Emissions?

Since 1965, over ⅓ of the world’s cumulative carbon emissions can be traced back to just 20 fossil fuel companies. Who are the biggest contributors?

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20 Companies Responsible For the Most Carbon Emissions?

Since 1965, it’s estimated over 1.35 million metric tons (MtCO₂e) of greenhouse gases have been released into the atmosphere—and over a third can be traced back to just 20 companies.

This week’s chart draws on a dataset from the Climate Accountability Institute, and highlights the companies which have been responsible for the most carbon emissions in the past half-century.

The Sum of their Carbon Emissions

Between 1965-2017, the top 20 companies have contributed 480,169 MtCO₂e in total carbon emissions, or 35% of cumulative global emissions. This whopping amount is mostly from the combustion of their products—each company on this chart deals in fossil fuels.

The largest contributor? Saudi Aramco, the national petroleum and natural gas company of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Aramco actually comes in first on another list as well—it’s the most profitable company, making over $304 million daily.

However, this financial gain came at a significant cost: the state-owned giant’s operations have resulted in 59,262 MtCO₂e in carbon emissions since 1965. To put that into perspective, this total is more than six times China’s emissions in 2017 alone (9,838 MtCO₂e).

Explore the full list of companies by location, who owns them, and their total 1965–2017 emissions count below:

CompanyCountryOwnershipAll Emissions, MtCO₂e
Total Emissions480,169 MtCO₂e
Saudi Aramco🇸🇦 Saudi ArabiaState-owned59,262
Chevron🇺🇸 U.S.Investor-owned43,345
Gazprom🇷🇺 RussiaState-owned43,230
Exxon Mobil🇺🇸 U.S.Investor-owned41,904
National Iranian Oil Co.🇮🇷 IranState-owned35,658
BP🇬🇧 UKInvestor-owned34,015
Royal Dutch Shell🇳🇱 NetherlandsInvestor-owned31,948
Coal India🇮🇳 IndiaState-owned23,124
Pemex🇲🇽 MexicoState-owned22,645
Petroleus de Venezuela🇻🇪 VenezuelaState-owned15,745
PetroChina🇨🇳 ChinaState-owned15,632
Peabody Energy🇺🇸 U.S.Investor-owned15,385
ConocoPhillips🇺🇸 U.S.Investor-owned15,229
Abu Dhabi National Oil Co.🇦🇪 UAEState-owned13,840
Kuwait Petroleum Corp.🇰🇼 KuwaitState-owned13,479
Iraq National Oil Co.🇮🇶 IraqState-owned12,596
Total SA🇫🇷 FranceInvestor-owned12,352
Sonatrach🇩🇿 AlgeriaState-owned12,302
BHP Billiton🇦🇺 AustraliaInvestor-owned9,802
Petrobras🇧🇷 BrazilState-owned8,676

A Greener Business Model?

According to the researchers, all the companies that show up in today’s chart bear some responsibility for knowingly accelerating the climate crisis even after proven scientific evidence.

In fact, U.S.-based Exxon Mobil is currently on trial for misleading investors: the company downplayed the effect of climate change on its profitability, while internal calculations proved to be much larger. It also sowed public doubt on the immense impacts of rising greenhouse gas levels on the planet.

Growing sustainability and environmental concerns threaten the viability of old business models for these corporations, causing many to pivot away from the fossil fuel focus. Take BP for example—originally named British Petroleum, the company embraced “Beyond Petroleum” as its new rallying cry. More recently, it launched a carbon footprint calculator and is committed to keeping its carbon emissions flat into 2025.

However, the Climate Accountability Institute argues that more can still be done, with the researchers calling for these companies to reduce their fossil fuel production in the near future.

Continued pressure on these “Big Oil” companies to peak their carbon emissions, and urgently increase their renewable energy investment, may help curb the climate crisis before it’s too late.

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