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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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The Emissions Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns, As Shown by Satellites

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been all-consuming, these satellite images show its unintended environmental impacts on NO₂ emissions.

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The Emissions Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns

There’s a high chance you’re reading this while practicing social distancing, or while your corner of the world is under some type of advised or enforced lockdown.

While these are necessary measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, such economic interruption is unprecedented in many ways—resulting in some surprising side effects.

The Evidence is in NO₂ Emissions

Nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) emissions, a major air pollutant, are closely linked to factory output and vehicles operating on the road.

As both industry and transport come to a halt during this pandemic, NO₂ emissions can be a good indicator of global economic activity—and the changes are visible from space.

These images from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), as well as satellite footage from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), show a drastic decline in NO₂ emissions over recent months, particularly across Italy and China.

NO₂ Emissions Across Italy

In Italy, the number of active COVID-19 cases has surpassed China (including the death toll). Amid emergency actions to lock down the entire nation, everything from schools and shops, to restaurants and even some churches, are closed.

Italy is also an industrial hub, with the sector accounting for nearly 24% of GDP. With many Italians urged to work from home if possible, visible economic activity has dropped considerably.

This 10-day moving average animation (from January 1st—March 11th, 2020) of nitrogen dioxide emissions across Europe clearly demonstrates how the drop in Italy’s economic activity has impacted the environment.


Source: European Space Agency (ESA)

That’s not all: a drop in boat traffic also means that Venice’s canals are clear for the time being, as small fish have begun inhabiting the waterways again. Experts are cautious to note that this does not necessarily mean the water quality is better.

NO₂ Emissions Across China

The emissions changes above China are possibly even more obvious to the eye. China is the world’s most important manufacturing hub and a significant contributor to greenhouse gases globally. But in the month following Lunar New Year (a week-long festival in early February), satellite imagery painted a different picture.

no2 emissions wuhan china
Source: NASA Earth Observatory

NO₂ emissions around the Hubei province, the original epicenter of the virus, steeply dropped as factories were forced to shutter their doors for the time being.

What’s more, there were measurable effects in the decline of other emission types from the drop in coal use during the same time, compared to years prior.

China Coal Use FInal

Back to the Status Quo?

In recent weeks, China has been able to flatten the curve of its total COVID-19 cases. As a result, the government is beginning to ease its restrictions—and it’s clear that social and economic activities are starting to pick back up in March.


Source: European Space Agency (ESA)

With the regular chain of events beginning to resume, it remains to be seen whether NO₂ emissions will rebound right back to their pre-pandemic levels.

This bounce-back effect—which can sometimes reverse any overall drop in emissions—is [called] “revenge pollution”. And in China, it has precedent.

Li Shuo, Senior climate policy advisor, Greenpeace East Asia

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The World’s Highest Mountains, And What Their Names Mean

Mountains have inspired humans for centuries. But while Everest and Kilimanjaro might ring a bell, do you know the true meanings behind their names?

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World’s Highest Mountains, and What Their Names Mean

View the high resolution version of this infographic by clicking here

From the Himalayas to the Andes, mountains have inspired and awed us for thousands of years.

Humans have ascribed all sorts of mythologies and metaphors to these jagged geological features. But while Everest or Kilimanjaro may ring a bell, do you know the meaning behind their names?

Today’s infographic from Alan’s Factory Outlet sorts the world’s highest mountains by continent, and explains the detailed origins of their names.

A Mountain By Any Other Name

Out of the 70 mountains profiled, only 41 are actually considered mountains. The rest are technically either a massif or a volcano (or a dome in one instance).

A massif (French for ‘massive’) is produced when a hard, unbendable rock is pushed towards the surface. They can also be formed when magma hardens once it’s above ground. For the rest of this post, we’ll refer to mountains and massifs interchangeably.

The highest mountains on each continent are considered to be part of the Seven Summits. Mountaineer Richard Bass was the first to scale all seven summits in 1985—and the 55-year old did so in only one year.

The Highest Mountain on Each Continent

NameLocationHeightMeaning of Name
Mount EverestNepal/ China, Asia29,029ft (8,848m)After Sir George Everest, former surveyor of India
Nepali name (Sagarmatha): “Forehead of the Sky”
Tibetan name (Chomolungma): “Goddess Mother of Mountain”
AconcaguaArgentina, S. America22,841ft (6,962m)Various native words: “Comes from the other side”, “Sentinel of stone”, “White sentinel”, “white ravine”
DenaliAlaska, U.S., N. America20,310ft (6,190m)Native Koyukon Athabascan: ‘high’ or ‘tall’
Mount KilimanjaroTanzania, Africa19,341ft (5,895m)Unclear, but some suggest it is a combination of Swahili 'Kilma' ("mountain") and KiChagga 'Njaro' ("whiteness")
Mount ElbrusRussia, Europe18,510ft (5,642m)Derived from Iranian mythology for  legendary mountain ‘Avestan Hara Berezaiti’: “high watchtower”
Vinson MassifAntarctica16,050ft (4,892m)After Carl G. Vinson, a congressman from Georgia who supported the Antarctic Exploration
Puncak JayaIndonesia, Asia/ Oceania16,024ft (4,884m)Sanskrit: "Victorious mountain"

Among these impressive peaks, two are technically volcanoes—Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and Mount Elbrus in Russia. Overall, it’s clear that a majority of their names have been influenced by the native languages in their surroundings.

The 10 Asian Giants

The highest mountains in the world are all in Asia, with nine of the ten highest found in the Himalayan range. Many of their names are derived from Sino-Tibetan languages, and some have mythological or religious influences.

NameLocationHeightMeaning of Name
Mount EverestNepal/ China29,029ft (8,848m)After Sir George Everest, former surveyor of India
Nepali name (Sagarmatha): “Forehead of the Sky”
Tibetan name (Chomolungma): “Goddess Mother of Mountain”
K2Pakistan28,251ft (8,611m)First surveyor labeled each mountain with a K and number. It has no local name due to its remoteness
KangchenjungaNepal/ India28,169ft (8,586m)Lhopo: “Five treasures of the high snow”
LhotseNepal/ China27,940ft (8,516m)Tibetan: “South peak”
MakaluNepal/ China27,838ft (8,485m)Sanskrit origin: “Big Black”, the name for the Hindu god Shiva
Cho OyuNepal26,864ft (8,188m)Tibetan: “Turquoise goddess”
Dhaulagiri
(*Massif)
Nepal26,795ft (8,167m)Sanskrit origin: ‘Dazzling, beautiful, white mountain’
ManasluNepal26,781ft (8,163m)Tibetan: ‘Mountain of the spirit’
Sanskrit origin (Manasa): ‘intellect’ or ‘soul’
Nanga ParbatPakistan26,660ft (8,126m)Sanskrit origin: “Naked mountain”
Annapurna
(*Massif)
Nepal26,545ft (8,091m)Sanskrit origin: “Everlasting food”
Name of the Hindu goddess of food and nourishment, believed to reside in the mountain

The second-highest mountain, K2 in Pakistan, lacks a more flowery name because it isn’t visible by any locals due to its remote location.

Majestic North America

The highest peaks in this region are scattered across three countries, with five volcanoes, four mountains, and one massif. Denali in Alaska, U.S. boasts unique names across nearly seven different Indigenous languages.

NameLocationHeightMeaning of Name
DenaliAlaska, U.S.20,310 ft (6,190 m)Native Koyukon Athabascan: ‘high’ or ‘tall’
Mount LoganCanada19,551 ft (5,959 m)After Sir William Edmond Logan
(Founder of Geological Survey of Canada
Pico de OrizabaMexico18,491 ft (5,636 m)Nahuatl: "Star mountain"
Mount Saint EliasAlaska, U.S.18,009 ft (5,489 m)After Cape Saint Elias
Tlingit: "Mountain behind icy bay"
PopocatépetlMexico17,749 ft (5,410 m)Nahuatl: "Smoking Mountain"
Mount ForakerAlaska, U.S.17,400 ft (5,304 m)After an Ohio Senator, Joseph B. Foraker
Dena'ina: "Denali's wife"
Mount LucaniaCanada17,257 ft (5,260 m)Named by the Duke of Abruzzi for the RMS Lucania
(A ship he sailed from Liverpool to New York)
IztaccíhuatlMexico17,159 ft (5,230 m)Nahuatl: "White woman"
King PeakCanada16,972 ft (5,173 m)After Canadian surveyor and politician William King
Mount BonaAlaska, U.S.16,550 ft (5,044 m)Named by the Duke of Abruzzi after his racing yacht

Mexico’s highest volcanoes also have a Romeo and Juliet-esque myth that links them. Popocatépetl (active volcano) and Iztaccíhuatl (dormant volcano) are presumed to be lovers, both of whom meet a tragic end. It’s said that the active volcano is avenging its beloved’s death to this day.

Far Beyond the Horizon

Traveling to the southernmost tip of the Earth, you might be surprised to learn that volcanoes even exist in Antarctica. Mount Sidley is the highest, dormant, snow-covered volcano found here.

The only dome on the entire highest mountains list is Dome Argus (13,428 ft or 4,093 m). This is the coldest place on the planet, dropping between -144°F to -133°F (-98°C to -90°C).

Dome Argus is also unique from another angle—it’s the only one on Antarctica with fabled origins, based off the Greek figure Argus, builder of the mythological hero Jason and the Argonauts’ ship. The remaining mountains here are named for scientists and supporters of various Antarctic expeditions.

Under Sea, and Outer Space

All these highest mountains are visible on land, but it’s possible that more secrets remain in the deep blue. The Hawaiian dormant volcano Mauna Kea doesn’t make this list due to its lower elevation above sea level, but it’s actually 33,500ft (10,200m) high from tip to peak—far taller than even Everest.

Everest is still really impressive, but it’s also only a fraction of the size of Olympus Mons, the highest mountain on Mars and in the solar system. New planets are also being discovered every year, presenting further possibilities.

Ultimately, this suggests we’ve not yet peaked at discovering the massive mountains which exist in—and out—of this world.

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