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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

The Carbon Footprint of the Food Supply Chain

According to the largest ever meta-analysis of food systems, the carbon footprint of different types of food in your diet can vary widely.

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Which Foods Have the Greatest Environmental Impact?

The quantity of greenhouse gases (GHGs) generated by our food can vary considerably across the global food supply chain.

In fact, the difference between specific food types can vary by orders of magnitude, meaning what we eat could be a significant factor impacting GHG emissions on the environment.

Today’s modified chart from Our World in Data relies on data from the largest meta-analysis of food systems in history. The study, published in Science was led by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek to highlight the carbon footprint across different food types across the world.

The Foods With the Highest Carbon Footprint

Worldwide, there are approximately 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) emitted through the food supply chain per year.

Across a database extending through 119 countries and 38,000 commercial farms, the study found that, unsurprisingly, beef and other animal products have an outsize effect on emissions.

For example, one kilogram (kg) of beef results in 60 kg of GHG emissions—nearly 2.5x the closest food type, lamb and mutton. In contrast, the same weight of apples produce less than one kilogram of GHG emissions.

Food TypeGHG Emissions per 1 kg Produced
Beef (beef herd)60 kgCO2e
Lamb & Mutton24 kgCO2e
Cheese21 kgCO2e
Beef (dairy herd)21 kgCO2e
Chocolate19 kgCO2e
Coffee17 kgCO2e
Prawns (farmed)12 kgCO2e
Palm Oil8 kgCO2e
Pig Meat7 kgCO2e
Poultry Meat6 kgCO2e
Olive Oil6 kgCO2e
Fish (farmed)5 kgCO2e
Eggs4.5 kgCO2e
Rice4 kgCO2e
Fish (wild catch)3 kgCO2e
Milk3 kgCO2e
Cane Sugar3 kgCO2e
Groundnuts2.5 kgCO2e
Wheat & Rye1.4 kgCO2e
Tomatoes1.4 kgCO2e
Maize (Corn)1.0 kgCO2e
Cassava1.0 kgCO2e
Soymilk0.9 kgCO2e
Peas0.9 kgCO2e
Bananas0.7 kgCO2e
Root Vegetables0.4 kgCO2e
Apples0.4 kgCO2e
Citrus Fruits0.3 kgCO2e
Nuts0.3 kgCO2e

When it comes to plant-based foods, chocolate is among the highest GHG emitters. One kilogram of chocolate produces 19 kg of GHGs. On average, emissions from plant-based foods are 10 to 50 times lower than animal-based types.

Bottom line, it is clear that the spectrum of emissions differs significantly across each food type.

Food Supply Chain Stages

The food supply chain is complex and nuanced as it moves across each stage of the cycle.

Although the steps behind the supply chain for individual foods can vary considerably, each typically has seven stages:

  1. Land Use Change
  2. Farm
  3. Animal Feed
  4. Processing
  5. Transport
  6. Retail
  7. Packaging

Across all foods, the land use and farm stages of the supply chain account for 80% of GHG emissions. In beef production, for example, there are three key contributing factors to the carbon footprint at these stages: animal feed, land conversion, and methane production from cows. In the U.S., beef production accounts for 40% of total livestock-related land use domestically.

On the other end of the spectrum is transportation. This stage of the supply chain makes up 10% of total GHG emissions on average. When it comes to beef, the proportion of GHGs that transportation emits is even smaller, at just 0.5% of total emissions.

Contrary to popular belief, sourcing food locally may not help GHG emissions in a very significant way, especially in the case of foods with a large carbon footprint.

The Rise of Plant-Based Alternatives

Amid a growing market share of plant-based alternatives in markets around the world, the future of the food supply chain could undergo a significant transition.

For investors, this shift is already evident. Beyond Meat, a leading provider of meat substitutes, was one of the best performing stocks of 2019—gaining 202% after its IPO in May 2019.

As rising awareness about the environment becomes more prevalent, is it possible that growing meat consumption could be a thing of the past?

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Environment

As the Worlds Turn: Visualizing the Rotation of Planets

Rotation can have a big influence on a planet’s habitability. These animations show how each planet in the solar system moves to its own distinct rhythm.

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As the Worlds Turn: Visualizing the Rotations of Planets

The rotation of planets have a dramatic effect on their potential habitability.

Dr. James O’Donoghue, a planetary scientist at the Japanese space agency who has the creative ability to visually communicate space concepts like the speed of light and the vastness of the solar system, recently animated a video showing cross sections of different planets spinning at their own pace on one giant globe.

Cosmic Moves: The Rotation of the Planets

Each planet in the solar system moves to its own rhythm. The giant gas planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) spin more rapidly on their axes than the inner planets. The sun itself rotates slowly, only once a month.

PlanetRotation Periods (relative to stars)
Mercury58d 16h
Venus243d 26m
Earth23h 56m
Mars24h 36m
Jupiter9h 55m
Saturn10h 33m
Uranus17h 14m
Neptune16h

The planets all revolve around the sun in the same direction and in virtually the same plane. In addition, they all rotate in the same general direction, with the exceptions of Venus and Uranus.

In the following animation, their respective rotation speeds are compared directly:

The most visually striking result of planetary spin is on Jupiter, which has the fastest rotation in the solar system. Massive storms of frozen ammonia grains whip across the surface of the gas giant at speeds of 340 miles (550 km) per hour.

Interestingly, the patterns of each planet’s rotation can help in revealing whether they can support life or not.

Rotation and Habitability

As a fish in water is not aware it is wet, so it goes for humans and the atmosphere around us.

New research reveals that the rate at which a planet spins is an essential component for supporting life. Not only does rotation control the length of day and night, bit it influences atmospheric wind patterns and the formation of clouds.

The radiation the Earth receives from the Sun concentrates at the equator. The Sun heats the air in this region until it rises up through the atmosphere and moves towards the poles of the planet where it cools. This cool air falls through the atmosphere and flows back towards the equator.

This process is known as a Hadley cell, and atmospheres can have multiple cells:

Hadley Cells

A planet with a quick rotation forms Hadley cells at low latitudes into different bands that encircle the planet. Clouds become prominent at tropical regions, which reflect a proportion of the light back into space.

For a planet in a tighter orbit around its star, the radiation received from the star is much more extreme. This decreases the temperature difference between the equator and the poles, ultimately weakening Hadley cells. The result is fewer clouds in tropical regions available to protect the planet from intense heat, making the planet uninhabitable.

Slow Rotators: More Habitable

If a planet rotates slower, then the Hadley cells can expand to encircle the entire world. This is because the difference in temperature between the day and night side of the planet creates larger atmospheric circulation.

Slow rotation makes days and nights longer, such that half of the planet bathes in light from the sun for an extended period of time. Simultaneously, the night side of the planet is able to cool down.

This difference in temperature is large enough to cause the warm air from the day side to flow to the night side. This movement of air allows more clouds to form around a planet’s equator, protecting the surface from harmful space radiation, encouraging the possibility for the right conditions for life to form.

The Hunt for Habitable Planets

Measuring the rotation of planets is difficult with a telescope, so another good proxy would be to measure the level of heat emitted from a planet.

An infrared telescope can measure the heat emitted from a planet’s clouds that formed over its equator. An unusually low temperature at the hottest location on the planet could indicate that the planet is potentially a habitable slow rotator.

Of course, even if a planet’s rotation speed is just right, many other conditions come into play. The rotation of planets is just another piece in the puzzle in identifying the next Earth.

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