Mapping the World's Plastic Waste Flows: Top Importers and Exporters
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Mapping the Flow of the World’s Plastic Waste

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Plastic Waste Imports and Exports

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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Agriculture

Charted: U.S. Egg Prices More Than Double in 2022

This chart shows the increase in the national average price of a dozen Grade A eggs in the U.S. in 2022.

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This chart shows the increase in the national average price of a dozen grade-A eggs in the U.S. in 2022.

Charted: U.S. Egg Prices Double in 2022

Eggs are a staple food for many countries around the world, and the U.S. is no exception. Americans eat between 250‒280 eggs a year on average.

Eggs are also easy to cook, protein-dense and supply many daily vitamins needed for healthy living, making them a popular meal or ingredient. So when egg prices rise, people notice.

MetalytIQ charted the rapid rise of egg prices in the U.S. during 2022, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS).

Eggs-asperating Prices

Over the course of 12 months, the national average price for a dozen large Grade A eggs more than doubled, to $4.25 in December from $1.93 in January.

Egg Prices Per Month (2022)Price per dozen
January$1.30
February$2.10
March$2.50
April$2.52
May$2.86
June$2.71
July$2.94
August$3.12
September$2.90
October$3.42
November$3.59
December$4.25

The biggest culprit has been an avian flu outbreak that resulted in 43 million chickens culled to prevent the spread of the disease.

This led to a severe shortfall in egg supply. Egg inventories in December had fallen by one-third compared to January. Combined with increasing demand during the holiday season, prices skyrocketed and empty shelves became apparent in some states.

This is not the first time avian flu has disrupted the industry.. In 2015, a similar outbreak pushed egg prices up 40% in nine months, reaching a high of $2.97 per dozen eggs in September 2015.

Will Egg Prices Drop in 2023?

Avian flu isn’t the only storm the egg industry has been facing in 2022.

The prices of soybean and corn—the main components of bird feed—account for half of the cost of eggs. They’ve been heavily affected by the war in Ukraine, which has driven grain prices higher.

In the near-term, egg prices are expected to remain high. Containing the avian flu outbreak will remain the biggest factor in determining the prices, but as suppliers increase production, prices may cool off a little in 2023.

Eggs and dairy make up nearly 10% of the average person’s daily calorie intake. Check out the rest of our dietary make-up in Visualizing a Rapidly Changing Global Diet.
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