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.
Visualizing China’s Energy Transition in 5 Charts
This infographic takes a look at what China’s energy transition plans are to make its energy mix carbon neutral by 2060.
Visualizing China’s Energy Transition in 5 Charts
In September 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping announced the steps his nation would take to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 via videolink before the United Nations Assembly in New York.
This infographic takes a look at what this ambitious plan for China’s energy would look like and what efforts are underway towards this goal.
China’s Ambitious Plan
A carbon-neutral China requires changing the entire economy over the next 40 years, a change the IEA compares to the ambition of the reforms that industrialized the country’s economy in the first place.
China is the world’s largest consumer of electricity, well ahead of the second place consumer, the United States. Currently, 80% of China’s energy comes from fossil fuels, but this plan envisions only 14% coming from coal, oil, and natural gas in 2060.
|Energy Source||2025||2060||% Change|
Source: Tsinghua University Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy; U.S. EIA
According to the Carbon Brief, China’s 14th five-year plan appears to enshrine Xi’s goal. This plan outlines a general and non specific list of projects for a new energy system. It includes the construction of eight large-scale clean energy centers, coastal nuclear power, electricity transmission routes, power system flexibility, oil-and-gas transportation, and storage capacity.
Progress Towards Renewables?
While the goal seems far off in the future, China is on a trajectory towards reducing the carbon emissions of its electricity grid with declining coal usage, increased nuclear, and increased solar power capacity.
According to ChinaPower, coal fueled the rise of China with the country using 144 million tonnes of oil equivalent “Mtoe” in 1965, peaking at 1,969 Mtoe in 2013. However, its share as part of the country’s total energy mix has been declining since the 1990s from ~77% to just under ~60%.
Another trend in China’s energy transition will be the greater consumption of energy as electricity. As China urbanized, its cities expanded creating greater demand for electricity in homes, businesses, and everyday life. This trend is set to continue and approach 40% of total energy consumed by 2030 up from ~5% in 1990.
Under the new plan, by 2060, China is set to have 42% of its energy coming from solar and nuclear while in 2025 it is only expected to be 6%. China has been adding nuclear and solar capacity and expects to add the equivalent of 20 new reactors by 2025 and enough solar power for 33 million homes (110GW).
Changing the energy mix away from fossil fuels, while ushering in a new economic model is no small task.
Up to the Task?
China is the world’s factory and has relatively young industrial infrastructure with fleets of coal plants, steel mills, and cement factories with plenty of life left.
However, China also is the biggest investor in low-carbon energy sources, has access to massive technological talent, and holds a strong central government to guide the transition.
The direction China takes will have the greatest impact on the health of the planet and provide guidance for other countries looking to change their energy mixes, for better or for worse.
The world is watching…even if it’s by videolink.
Visualizing 50+ Years of the G20’s Energy Mix
Watch how the energy mix of G20 countries has evolved over the last 50+ years.
Visualizing 50+ Years of the G20’s Energy Mix (1965–2019)
Over the last 50 years, the energy mix of G20 countries has changed drastically in some ways.
With many countries and regions pledging to move away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner sources of energy, the overall energy mix is becoming more diversified. But shutting down plants and replacing them with new sources takes time, and most countries are still incredibly reliant on fossil fuels.
G20’s Energy History: Fossil Fuel Dependence (1965–1999)
At first, there was oil and coal.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, energy consumption in the G20 countries relied almost entirely on these two fossil fuels. They were the cheapest and most efficient sources of energy for most, though some countries also used a lot of natural gas, like the United States, Mexico, and Russia.
|Country (Energy Mix - 1965)||Oil||Coal||Other|
|🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||98%||0%||2%|
|🇿🇦 South Africa||19%||81%||0%|
|🇰🇷 South Korea||20%||77%||3%|
But the use of oil for energy started to decrease, beginning most notably in the 1980s. Rocketing oil prices forced many utilities to turn to coal and natural gas (which were becoming cheaper), while others in countries like France, Japan, and the U.S. embraced the rise of nuclear power.
This is most notable in countries with high historic oil consumption, like Argentina and Indonesia. In 1965, these three countries relied on oil for more than 83% of energy, but by 1999, oil made up just 55% of Indonesia’s energy mix and 36% of Argentina’s.
Even Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, began to utilize oil less. By 1999, oil was used for 65% of energy in the country, down from a 1965 high of 97%.
G20’s Energy Mix: Gas and Renewables Climb (2000–2019)
The conversation around energy changed in the 21st century. Before, countries were focused primarily on efficiency and cost, but very quickly, they had to start contending with emissions.
Climate change was already on everyone’s radar. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992, and the resulting Kyoto Protocol aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions was signed in 1997.
But when the Kyoto Protocol went into effect in 2005, countries had very different options available to them. Some started to lean more heavily on hydroelectricity, though countries that already utilized them like Canada and Brazil had to look elsewhere. Others turned to nuclear power, but the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan turned many away.
This is the period of time that renewables started to pick up steam, primarily in the form of wind power at first. By 2019, the G20 members that relied on renewables the most were Brazil (16%), Germany (16%), and the UK (14%).
|Country (Energy Mix - 2019)||Natural Gas||Nuclear||Hydroelectric||Renewables||Other|
|🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||37%||0%||0%||0%||63%|
|🇿🇦 South Africa||3%||2%||0%||2%||93%|
|🇰🇷 South Korea||16%||11%||0%||2%||71%|
However, the need to reduce emissions quickly made many countries make a simpler switch: cut back on oil and coal and utilize more natural gas. Bituminous coal, one of the most commonly used in steam-electric power stations, emits 76% more CO₂ than natural gas. Diesel fuel and heating oil used in oil power plants emit 38% more CO₂ than natural gas.
As countries begin to push more strongly towards a carbon-neutral future, the energy mix of the 2020s and onward will continue to change.
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