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.
Charted: The Safest and Deadliest Energy Sources
What are the safest energy sources? This graphic shows both GHG emissions and accidental deaths caused by different energy sources.
Charted: The Safest and Deadliest Energy Sources
Recent conversations about climate change, emissions, and health have put a spotlight on the world’s energy sources.
As of 2021, nearly 90% of global CO₂ emissions came from fossil fuels. But energy production doesn’t just lead to carbon emissions, it can also cause accidents and air pollution that has a significant toll on human life.
This graphic by Ruben Mathisen uses data from Our World in Data to help visualize exactly how safe or deadly these energy sources are.
Fossil Fuels are the Highest Emitters
All energy sources today produce greenhouse gases either directly or indirectly. However, the top three GHG-emitting energy sources are all fossil fuels.
|Energy||GHG Emissions (CO₂e/gigawatt-hour)|
|Natural Gas||490 tonnes|
Coal produces 820 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent (CO₂e) per gigawatt-hour. Not far behind is oil, which produces 720 tonnes CO₂e per gigawatt-hour. Meanwhile, natural gas produces 490 tonnes of CO₂e per gigawatt-hour.
These three sources contribute to over 60% of the world’s energy production.
Generating energy at a massive scale can have other side effects, like air pollution or accidents that take human lives.
|Energy Sources||Death rate (deaths/terawatt-hour)|
According to Our World in Data, air pollution and accidents from mining and burning coal fuels account for around 25 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity—roughly the amount consumed by about 150,000 EU citizens in one year. The same measurement sees oil responsible for 18 annual deaths, and natural gas causing three annual deaths.
Meanwhile, hydropower, which is the most widely used renewable energy source, causes one annual death per 150,000 people. The safest energy sources by far are wind, solar, and nuclear energy at fewer than 0.1 annual deaths per terawatt-hour.
Nuclear energy, because of the sheer volume of electricity generated and low amount of associated deaths, is one of the world’s safest energy sources, despite common perceptions.
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