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 States||961,563 tons||🇲🇾 Malaysia||913,165 tons|
|🇯🇵 Japan||891,719 tons||🇹🇭 Thailand||471,724 tons|
|🇩🇪 Germany||733,756 tons||🇻🇳 Vietnam||443,615 tons|
|🇬🇧 United Kingdom||548,256 tons||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||398,261 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?
- 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.
- 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.
Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface
This detailed map looks at where humans have (and haven’t) modified Earth’s terrestrial environment. See human impact in incredible detail.
Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface
With human population on Earth approaching 8 billion (we’ll likely hit that milestone in 2023), our impact on the planet is becoming harder to ignore with each passing year.
Our cities, infrastructure, agriculture, and pollution are all forms of stress we place on the natural world. This map, by David M. Theobald et al., shows just how much of the planet we’ve now modified. The researchers estimate that 14.6% or 18.5 million km² of land area has been modified – an area greater than Russia.
Defining Human Impact
Human impact on the Earth’s surface can take a number of different forms, and researchers took a nuanced approach to classifying the “modifications” we’ve made. In the end, 10 main stressors were used to create this map:
- Built-Up Areas: All of our cities and towns
- Agriculture: Areas devoted to crops and pastures
- Energy and extractive resources: Primarily locations where oil and gas are extracted
- Mines and quarries: Other ground-based natural resource extraction, excluding oil and gas
- Power plants: Areas where energy is produced – both renewable and non-renewable
- Transportation and service corridors: Primarily roads and railways
- Logging: This measures commodity-based forest loss (excludes factors like wildfire and urbanization)
- Human intrusion: Typically areas adjacent to population centers and roads that humans access
- Natural systems modification: Primarily modifications to water flow, including reservoir creation
- Pollution: Phenomenon such as acid rain and fog caused by air pollution
The classification descriptions above are simplified. See the methodology for full descriptions and calculations.
A Closer Look at Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface
To help better understand the level of impact humans can have on the planet, we’ll take a closer look three regions, and see how the situation on the ground relates to these maps.
Land Use Contrasts: Egypt
Almost all of Egypt’s population lives along the Nile and its delta, making it an interesting place to examine land use and human impact.
The towns and high intensity agricultural land following the river stand out clearly on the human modification map, while the nearby desert shows much less impact.
Intensive Modification: Netherlands
The Netherlands has some of the heavily modified landscapes on Earth, so the way it looks on this map will come as no surprise.
The area shown above, Rotterdam’s distinctive port and surround area, renders almost entirely in colors at the top of the human modification scale.
Resource Extraction: West Virginia
It isn’t just cities and towns that show up clearly on this map, it’s also the areas we extract our raw materials from as well. This mountainous region of West Virginia, in the United States, offers a very clear visual example.
The mountaintop removal method of mining—which involves blasting mountains in order to retrieve seams of bituminous coal—is common in this region, and mine sites show up clearly in the map.
You can explore the interactive version of this map yourself to view any area on the globe. What surprises you about these patterns of human impact?
The World’s Top Coffee Producing Countries
Coffee is the third most consumed beverage globally. Here we visualize the countries that have the highest coffee production in the world.
The World’s Top Coffee Producing Countries
In many cities around the world, there’s a café on every corner, so it comes as no surprise that coffee is one of the globes’ top commodities. As the third most consumed beverage globally, after water and tea, coffee beans are in high demand almost everywhere.
The top producing nations each produce billions of kilograms of coffee beans that find their way into the hands of eager consumers. According to the International Coffee Organization, a total of 169.6 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee were produced worldwide in 2020.
So, why does the world universally love coffee so much?
For The Love of Coffee
As most coffee lovers would tell you, drinking coffee is a complex and nuanced experience—there’s the rich aroma, the comforting warmth, and the loveliness of the ritual of sitting down with a fresh cup.
With the variety of ways it can be served and the jolt of caffeine it provides us, it’s not hard to see why the world loves its coffee. In fact, we love the beverage so much that humans have conditioned themselves to associate the bitter taste of coffee with a bout of energy and positive reinforcement.
So, where does the journey of each cup of joe originate? Let’s get to know the world’s top coffee producing countries.
The World’s Coffee Production Leaders
At the end of 2020, the top 10 biggest coffee-producing nations held 87% of the commodity’s market share.
Here is a list of the top 20 largest coffee-producing nations in the world:
|Rank||Country||Production in 2020 |
(Million 60-kg Bags)
|Total Market Share|
|13||🇨🇮 Côte d'Ivoire||1.8||1.1%|
|14||🇨🇷 Costa Rica||1.5||0.9%|
|17||🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea||0.7||0.4%|
|19||🇸🇻 El Salvador||0.6||0.4%|
While some of the world’s top coffee-producing nations are well known, others may come as a surprise. More than 70 countries produce coffee, but the majority of global output comes from just the top five producers: Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia.
Meet the Top Coffee Producing Countries
Brazil is a true powerhouse of coffee production. The country single-highhandedly produces nearly 40% of the world’s coffee supply.
Many areas in Brazil have a climate perfectly conducive to coffee farming. Coffee plantations cover about 27,000 square kilometers of Brazil, with the majority located in Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Parana.
Brazil distinguishes itself from most other coffee-producing nations by drying the coffee cherries in the sun (unwashed coffee) rather than washing them.
The country is so influential to coffee production that the 60-kilogram burlap bags historically used to export beans from Brazil are still the worldwide standard for measuring production and trade.
Vietnam found a niche in the international market by focusing primarily on the less-expensive Robusta bean. Robusta beans can have up to twice as much caffeine as Arabica beans, giving the coffee a more bitter taste.
Though coffee has been grown in the region for well over a century, production skyrocketed through the 1990s after Vietnam’s communist government introduced economic reforms (known as Đổi Mới).
Today, Vietnam accounts for more than 40% of the world’s Robusta bean production.
Coffee cultivation in Vietnam is also extremely productive. The country’s coffee yields are considerably higher than other top coffee-producing countries.
A popular advertising campaign featuring a fictional coffee farmer named Juan Valdez helped brand Colombia as one of the most famous coffee-producing nations. A coveted drink of choice, Colombian coffee is prized for its aromatic, mild, and fruity flavors.
Some of the rarest coffees in the Western world originate in Indonesia, including Kopi Luwak—a type of bean that has been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet. Coffee made from these coffee beans might cost you anywhere between $35 to $100 per cup.
Known for its full-flavored, down-to-earth, and full-bodied coffee beans, Ethiopia is the country that gave us the Arabica coffee plant. Today this type of coffee is considered to be the most widely sold in cafes and restaurants across the world.
All of these top producing countries are found in the so-called “Bean Belt”, which is located between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.
The Future of Coffee Production
With global temperatures on the rise, good coffee may become increasingly challenging to grow. To future-proof good and continued growth of coffee beans, finding newer and hybrid blends of coffee beans is essential.
Several studies and research missions have found wild species of coffee growing off the coast of Côte d’Ivoire and in certain regions of Sierra Leone, which could be the answer to our coffee production problems. Coffee from these coffee plants tasted similar to the famous Arabica bean and also grew at higher temperatures.
Though the future of coffee production around the world is somewhat uncertain, our collective love of the morning cup of coffee will drive innovative solutions, even in the face of changing climate patterns.
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