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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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Energy

Visualizing the Range of EVs on Major Highway Routes

We visualize how far popular EV models will take you on real-world routes between major cities, and which are the most cost effective.

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The Range of EVs on Major Highway Routes

Between growing concerns around climate change, new commuting behaviors due to COVID-19, and imminent policy changes, the global transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is well under way.

By the year 2040, sales of electric vehicles are projected to account for 58% of new car sales, up from just 2.7% currently.

But switching from a gasoline car to an electric one is not seamless. With charging and range capacities to consider, and the supporting infrastructure still being slowly rolled out in many parts of the world, understanding the realities of EV transportation is vital.

Above, we highlight 2020 all-electric vehicle range on well-recognized routes, from California’s I-5 in the U.S. to the A2 autobahn in Germany. The data on estimated ranges and costs are drawn from the U.S. EPA as well as directly from manufacturer websites.

The EV Breakdown: Tesla is King of Range

For many consumers, the most important aspect of an electric vehicle is how far they can travel on a single charge.

Whether it’s for long commutes or out-of-city trips, vehicles must meet a minimum threshold to be considered practical for many households. As the table below shows, Tesla’s well-known EVs are far-and-away the best option for long range drivers.

VehicleRange (miles)Range (km)MSRPCost per mile
Tesla Model S Long Range Plus402647$74,990$186.54
Tesla Model X Long Range Plus351565$79,990$227.89
Tesla Model S Performance348560$94,990$272.96
Tesla Model 3 Long Range322518$46,990$145.93
Tesla Model Y Long Range316509$49,990$158.20
Tesla Model X Performance305491$99,990$327.84
Tesla Model 3 LR Performance299481$54,990$183.91
Tesla Model Y Performance291468$59,990$206.15
Polestar 2275443$59,900$217.82
Chevrolet Bolt EV259417$36,620$141.39
Hyundai Kona Electric258415$37,190$144.15
Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus250402$37,990$151.96
Kia Niro EV239385$39,090$163.56
Jaguar I-PACE234377$69,850$298.50
Nissan LEAF e+ S226364$38,200$169.03
Audi e-tron Sportback218351$69,100$316.97
Nissan LEAF e+ SV/SL215346$39,750$184.88
Audi e-tron204328$65,900$323.04
Porsche Taycan 4S Perf Battery Plus203327$112,990$556.60
Porsche Taycan Turbo201323$153,510$763.73
Porsche Taycan Turbo S192309$187,610$977.14
Hyundai IONIQ Electric170274$33,045$194.38
BMW i3153246$44,450$290.52
Nissan LEAF149240$31,600$212.08
MINI Cooper SE110177$29,900$271.82
Fiat 500e84135$33,460$398.33

In an industry where innovation and efficiency are vital, Tesla’s first-mover advantage is evident. From the more affordable Model 3 to the more luxurious Model S, the top eight EVs with the longest ranges are all Tesla vehicles.

At 402 miles (647 km), the range of the number one vehicle (the Tesla Model S Long Range Plus) got 127 miles more per charge than the top non-Tesla vehicle, the Polestar 2—an EV made by Volvo’s standalone performance brand.

Closer Competition in Cost

Though Tesla leads on overall range and battery capacity, accounting for the price of each vehicle shows that cost-efficiency is far more competitive among brands.

By dividing the retail price by the maximum range of each vehicle, we can paint a clearer picture of efficiency. Leading the pack is the Chevrolet Bolt, which had a cost of $141.39/mile of range in 2020 while still placing in the top 10 for range with 259 miles (417 km).

Just behind in second place was the Hyundai Kona electric at $144.15/mile of range, followed by the Tesla Model 3—the most efficient of the automaker’s current lineup. Rounding out the top 10 are the Nissan LEAF and Tesla Model S, but the difference from number one to number ten was minimal, at just over $45/mile.

Top 10 All-Electric Vehicles by Cost Efficiency
VehicleCost per mile
Chevrolet Bolt EV$141.39
Hyundai Kona Electric$144.15
Tesla Model 3 Long Range$145.93
Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus$151.96
Tesla Model Y Long Range$158.20
Kia Niro EV$163.56
Nissan LEAF e+ S$169.03
Tesla Model 3 LR Performance$183.91
Nissan LEAF e+ SV/SL$184.88
Tesla Model S Long Range Plus$186.54

Higher Ranges and Lower Costs on the Horizon

The most important thing to consider, however, is that the EV industry is entering a critical stage.

On one hand, the push for electrification and innovation in EVs has driven battery capacity higher and costs significantly lower. As batteries account for the bulk of weight, cost, and performance in EVs, those dividends will pay out in longer ranges and greater efficiencies with newer models.

Equally important is the strengthening global push for electric vehicle adoption. In countries like Norway, EVs are already among the best selling cars on the market, while adoption rates in China and the U.S. are steadily climbing. This is also being impacted by policy decisions, such as California’s recent announcement that it would be banning the sale of gasoline cars by 2035.

Meanwhile, the only thing outpacing the growing network of Tesla superchargers is the company’s rising stock price. Not content to sit on the sidelines, competing automakers are rapidly trying to catch up. Nissan’s LEAF is just behind the Tesla Model 3 as the world’s second-best-selling EV, and Audi recently rolled out a supercharger network that can charge its cars from 0% to 80% at a faster rate than Tesla.

As the tidal wave of electric vehicle demand and adoption continues to pick up steam, consumers can expect increasing innovation to drive up ranges, decrease costs, and open up options.

Correction: A previous version of this graphic showed a European route that was the incorrect distance.

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Understanding How the Air Quality Index Works

This graphic breaks down how the air quality index is measured, and looks at which regions are hardest hit by atmospheric pollution and wildfires.

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how air quality works

Understanding How the Air Quality Index Works

Air quality levels have received a lot of attention in recent months.

In the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, many places reported a marked increase in air quality. Northern India captured the world’s attention when it was reported that the Himalayan mountain range was visible for the first time in decades.

On the flipside, later in the summer, wildfires swept over the Pacific Northwest and California, blanketing entire regions with a thick shroud of smoke that spanned hundreds of miles.

How is air quality measured, and what goes into the health scores we see?

Measuring the Air Quality Index

When we see that air quality is “good” or “unhealthy”, those public health categories are derived from the Air Quality Index (AQI).

In the U.S., the AQI is calculated using four major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act:

  • Ground-level ozone
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Particle pollution, also known as particulate matter

Some countries have a slightly different way of calculating their scores. For example, India also measures levels of ammonia and lead in the air.

To make these readings more accessible, the AQI has a scoring system that runs from 0 to 500, using data collected from air monitoring stations in cities around the world. Scores below 50 are considered good, with very little impact to human health. The higher the score gets, the worse the air quality is.

To make communicating potential health risks to the public even easier, ranges of scores have been organized into descriptive categories.

AQI Score RangeAQI CategoryPM2.5 (μg/m³)Health Risks
0-50Good0-12.0Air quality is satisfactory and poses little or no risk.
51-100Moderate12.1-35.4Sensitive individuals should avoid outdoor activity.
101-150Unhealthy35.5-55.4General public and sensitive individuals in particular are
at risk to experience irritation and respiratory problems.
151-200Unhealthy55.5-150.4Increased likelihood of adverse effects and aggravation
to the heart and lungs among general public.
201-300Very Unhealthy150.5-250.4General public will be noticeably affected.
Sensitive groups should restrict outdoor activities.
301+Hazardous250.5+General public is at high risk to experience strong
irritations and adverse health effects. Everyone
should avoid outdoor activities.

Particulate Matter

While all the forms of atmospheric pollution are a cause for concern, it’s the smaller 2.5μm particles that get the most attention. For one, we can see visible evidence in the form of haze and smoke when PM2.5 levels increase. As well, these fine particles have a much easier time entering our bodies via breathing.

There are a number of factors that can increase the concentration of a region’s particulate matter. Some common examples include:

  • Coal-fired power stations
  • Cooking stoves (Many people around the world burn organic material for cooking and heating)
  • Smoke from wildfires and slash-and-burn land clearing

Wildfires and Air Quality

Air quality scores can fluctuate a lot from season to season. For example, regions that are reliant on coal for power generation tend to see AQI score spikes during peak periods.

One of the biggest fluctuations occurs during wildfire season, when places that typically have scores in the “good” category can see scores reach unsafe levels. In 2020, Eastern Australia and the West Coast of the U.S. both saw massive drops in air quality during their respective wildfire seasons.

Air quality in wildfire season

Luckily, while these types of fluctuations are extreme, they are also temporary.

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