Visualizing the Scale of Plastic Bottle Waste Against Major Landmarks
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Visualizing the Scale of Plastic Bottle Waste Against Major Landmarks

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Plastic Bottle Waste Per Year

View the original interactive visualization at Reuters Graphics.

Visualizing the Scale of Plastic Bottle Waste

By the time you’re finished reading this sentence, tens of thousands of plastic bottles will have been sold around the world.

The ubiquitous plastic bottle has proven to be a versatile and cost-effective vessel for everything from water to household cleaning products. Despite this undeniable utility, it’s becoming harder to ignore the sheer volume of waste created by the world’s 7.5 billion people.

Today’s data visualization from Simon Scarr and Marco Hernandez at Reuters Graphics puts into perspective the immense scale of plastic bottle waste by comparing it to recognizable global landmarks, and even the entirety of Manhattan.

Plastic Wasted in One Hour

One Hour of Plastic Bottles

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

Every hour, close to 55 million bottles are discarded worldwide. When accumulated, the pile would be higher than the Brazilian Art Deco statue, Christ the Redeemer.

Towering over Rio de Janeiro at 125 feet (38 meters) and with arms outstretched to 98ft (30m), the statue still pales in comparison next to the combined plastic bottle waste over this time period.

Plastic Bottle Waste: Daily and Monthly

One Day of Plastic Bottles

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

In the span of a day, over 1.3 billion bottles are discarded. If you were to take the elevator up the Eiffel Tower (which has a total height of 1,063ft or 324m), you’d reach the tip of this pile about halfway up.

Fast forward this by a month, however, and it’s a different story. The Eiffel Tower seems like a figurine next to a heap of approximately 40 billion tossed plastic bottles.

plastic bottle waste one month

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

Scaling this up, data from Euromonitor International reveals that over 481 billion plastic bottles are now wasted annually.

Accumulated, this would dwarf even Dubai’s famous Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest structure at an impressive 2,722ft (830m).

A Decade of Plastic

According to Reuters, nearly 4 trillion bottles were sold in the past ten years, each contributing to a 7,874ft high pile of plastic (2.4km).

plastic bottles decade

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

If all plastic bottle waste were piled up in this manner, New Yorkers would see a translucent mountain every time they looked out their window rising to over half the elevation of the tallest peak in the Rocky Mountains, which is 14,440ft (4.4km) high.

The Global Flow of Plastic Waste Since 1950

Plastic bottles are just the tip of the iceberg for single-use plastics. Other examples include plastic bags, food packaging, coffee cup lids, and straws. As plastic use continues to flourish, even our best attempts at managing waste are falling short.

In fact, only an abysmal 6% of all plastic produced since 1950 has been recycled, with the majority ending up in landfills as litter, or getting incinerated.

Global Plastic Consumption Flow

Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

Our plastic use is on an unsustainable trajectory, but countries are taking specific actions to curb use. Canada and the European Union (EU) will ban certain single-use plastics by 2021—and they are among 60 other nations enacting similar policies.

Corporations are also taking steps to reduce impact. A good example of this is Unilever, which made a commitment to make all its packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

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The Biggest Carbon Emitters, By Sector

The manufacturing and construction sector contributed to 6.3 billion tonnes of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.

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The following content is sponsored by Northstar Clean Technologies

The Biggest Carbon Emitters, By Sector

It’s no secret that greenhouse gas emissions need to decrease drastically in order to fight the effects of climate change.

As countries across the globe ramp up efforts to reduce global warming, every industry needs to do its part. So who’s lagging and who’s leading?

Although often less discussed, the manufacturing and construction sector is a large contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.

The above graphic from Northstar Clean Technologies takes a look at the biggest contributors by sector in relation to greenhouse gas emissions.

Breakdown Of Emissions

The manufacturing and construction sector is a growing one, and as population and infrastructure expand, it’s vital that we take all actionable paths to reduce emissions.

Manufacturing and construction contributed to 6.3 billion tonnes of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Let’s look at the breakdown of greenhouse gas emissions by sector over the years from Our World In Data.

In 2019 electricity and heat were the biggest carbon emitters, while transport came in second place.

Manufacturing and construction overtook the agriculture sector in 2007 to become the third largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Building a Solution

One solution to reducing the impact of the manufacturing and construction sector is to repurpose materials. This reduces emissions and waste while also being both energy and cost-efficient.

Take a material like asphalt shingles as an example. This product is found on the roofs of approximately 75% of single-family detached homes in the U.S. and Canada.

In 2018, 86% of total asphalt shingles waste was dumped in landfills where they do not decompose or biodegrade. Reusing and recycling existing materials like asphalt shingles is a vital step in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the industry.

Northstar Clean Technologies repurposes the three primary components of asphalt shingles which are then recycled back into the market.

By reprocessing asphalt shingles into three primary components, Northstar’s clean technology has been shown to reduce CO₂ emissions by 60% compared to virgin production of liquid asphalt.

Click to learn how Northstar Clean Technologies is becoming one of the top material recovery providers in North America.

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Mapped: Carbon Dioxide Emissions Around the World

This graphic maps out carbon emissions around the world and where they come from, using data from the European Commission.

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mapping carbon dioxide emissions worldwide

Mapped: Carbon Dioxide Emissions Around the World

According to Our World in Data, the global population emits about 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO₂) each year.

Where does all this CO₂ come from? This graphic by Adam Symington maps out carbon emissions around the world, using 2018 data from the European Commission that tracks tonnes of CO₂ per 0.1 degree grid (roughly 11 square kilometers).

This type of visualization allows us to clearly see not just population centers, but flight paths, shipping lanes, and high production areas. Let’s take a closer look at some of these concentrated (and brightly lit) regions on the map.

China, India, and the Indian Ocean

As the two most populated countries and economic forces, China and India are both significant emitters of CO₂. China in particular accounts for about 27% of global CO₂ emissions.

And looking at the oceans, we see how much shipping adds to emissions, with many shipping lanes east of China clearly outlined as well as the major Indian Ocean lane between the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal.

The United States and Central America

The United States is one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters. While other countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia technically have higher emissions per capita, their overall emissions are relatively low due to smaller populations.

Across the U.S., the most brightly lit areas are major population centers like the Boston-Washington corridor, the Bay Area, and the Great Lakes. But also lit up are many of the interconnecting highways linking all these population centers, even in the less-populated middle of the country.

With so much traffic in and out of the U.S., the oceans become a murky mix of shipping and flight paths. To the south, very clearly visible is the major concentration of people around Mexico City and the traffic flowing through the Panama Canal.

South America’s Network of Emissions

Like the other regions, some of South America’s most populated areas are also the biggest emitters, such as São Paulo and Rio in Brazil and Buenos Aires in Argentina. This map also highlights the continent’s rough terrain, with most of the population and highway emissions limited to the coasts.

However, the cities aren’t the only big emitters in the region. There are clear lines intersecting the Amazon forest in many sections where cities and roads were constructed, including the economic hub city of Manaus along the Amazon River. Likewise, the oceans have many major shipping lanes highlighted, particularly East of Brazil.

Europe and North Africa

Germany is one of Europe’s biggest carbon emitters—in 2021, the country generated almost 644 million tonnes of CO₂.

Also making an impression are Italy (which is the second-highest CO₂ emitter after Germany) and the UK, as well the significant amount of trade along the English Channel.

Compared to the intricate network of cities, towns, and bustling highways spanning Europe, across the Mediterranean are far clearer and simpler lines of activity in Northern Africa. Two major exceptions are in the Middle-East, where Egypt’s Nile River and Suez Canal are massively lit up, as well as Israel on the east of the sea.

But a more significant (albeit murkier) picture is drawn by the massive amounts of shipping and flight paths illuminating the Atlantic and Mediterranean at large.

Net Zero by 2050

To mitigate the negative effects of climate change, countries around the world have made commitments to reach net-zero emissions.

Imagining the global map of emissions with these commitments in action requires a complete transformation of energy production, consumption habits, transportation infrastructure, and more. And even then, a future generated map wouldn’t be fully dark, as “net-zero” is not equivalent to zero emissions but a balance of emissions and removal.

How might this map of global emissions look in the near and distant future? And what other interesting insights can you generate by browsing the world this way?

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