Visualizing the World’s Top Plastic Emitting Rivers
Every year, approximately eight million metric tons of plastic enters the world’s oceans – the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic every single minute.
Every plastic fork and bottle cap bobbing along the surface of the ocean has made its way to the ocean from dry land at some point. As it turns out, the hydrological cycle that keeps water circulating around the planet is also an effective means for trash to hitch a ride from our riverside cities to the open ocean.
As today’s unique, vintage-themed map – via John Nelson at ESRI – visualizes the shocking amount of plastic emitted by major rivers in the world.
It would be hard to overstate plastic’s influence on modern life.
Unfortunately, when plastic is finished doing it’s job, only 10% of it ends up being recycled. Instead, much of the 300 million tonnes of plastic produced each year ends up in the ocean, congregating in places like the Pacific Garbage Patch.
Plastic discharge is especially pronounced in large population centers along large rivers – particularly in rapidly urbanizing regions in China, Indonesia, and Nigeria.
Waste management practices are limited to non-existent in many of Asia’s fast-growing urban areas, so it comes as little surprise that 14 to the top 20 plastic emitting rivers are located on that continent.
The mighty Yangtze – China’s largest river – supports a population of over 400 million people and is the most prolific emitter of plastic waste on the planet. Over 1.5 million metric tons of plastic is unleashed into the Yellow Sea from the river each year.
Stemming the Tide
Plastic emissions data makes one point clear – China is the key to decreasing the volume of trash entering our ocean ecosystems.
The good news is that the Chinese government has recognized the problem, mandating garbage sorting in nearly 50 cities and setting a target for at 35% recycling rate by 2020. A positive first step in the battle to stem the tide of plastic entering ocean systems.
How China’s Plastics Ban Threw Global Recycling into Disarray
For decades, developed countries outsourced their recyclables to China. Now, they’re on their own, and a multi-billion dollar opportunity has emerged.
Global Recycling: Reinventing a Broken System
First developed in the 20th century, plastics have become ubiquitous in our daily lives. Found in everything from food packaging to medical devices, this extremely versatile and cost-effective material has undoubtedly made our lives more convenient.
This convenience comes at a cost, however, and experts warn that plastics’ inability to biodegrade is taking a toll on the planet. To make matters worse, recycling infrastructure around the world is severely underdeveloped.
In this infographic from Swissquote, we recount the end of “easy” recycling, and examine the struggles that many countries are facing as they scale up their domestic capabilities.
The Single-Supplier Global Recycling Model
Since the early 1990s, developed countries have avoided the environmental costs of plastic by outsourcing their recycling to the developing world—more specifically, China.
At the time, this arrangement benefited both parties. On one hand, it was cheaper for developed countries to export their plastic waste rather than process it domestically. China, on the other hand, needed vast amounts of raw materials to fuel its burgeoning manufacturing industries. It also meant that Chinese container ships, which regularly delivered goods to countries like the U.S., would no longer return home empty-handed.
A system that relies heavily on one country can only handle so much, however, and by 2016 China was importing 7 million tonnes of recyclables and waste per year. To make matters worse, plastics production kept growing at a faster rate than the global population:
|Year||Growth in Global Plastics Production (%)||Growth in World Population (%)|
Source: PlasticsEurope, Worldometer
It was clear that this system would soon reach its tipping point, especially with the Chinese government largely committed to going green.
National Sword Policy
China’s solution to cutting down plastic imports was the National Sword policy, which at the start of 2018, implemented an import ban on 24 types of recyclables. The ban was extremely effective—plastic exports to China fell from 581,000 tonnes in February of 2017 to just 23,900 tonnes a year later.
All of this plastic did not simply disappear, though. Plastic-exporting countries scrambled for alternatives, and in some cases, diverted their shipments to nearby countries in Southeast Asia. Governments in the region were quick to respond, either refusing shipments or implementing bans of their own.
Richer countries are taking advantage of the looser regulations in poorer countries. They export the trash here because it’s more expensive for them to process [it] themselves back home due to the tighter laws.
—Lea Guerrero, Greenpeace Philippines
In one noteworthy case, Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, threatened to wage war on Canada if it did not take back its shipments of waste. An official later clarified this threat was not to be taken literally.
The End of “Easy” Recycling
Western countries tend to produce more plastics per capita than other countries, but are ill-prepared to begin processing their own plastic waste in a sustainable manner. One critical issue arises from their predominant method of recycling known as single-stream recycling.
Under this method, consumers place all of their recyclables into a single bin. This mixture of cardboard, plastics, and glass is then brought to a material recovery facility (MRF) to be sorted and processed. While this method makes it easier for consumers to recycle, it suffers from two weaknesses:
- Contamination: Mixing plastics, chemicals, and food waste adds extra costs to the recycling process. On average, one in four items that arrive at an MRF are too contaminated to be recycled.
- Sorting inefficiency: MRFs have a difficult time sorting through the wide variety of materials being placed into bins. Approximately one in six bottles and one in three cans are sorted incorrectly.
With outsourcing no longer an option, MRFs across the U.S. are now dealing with significantly larger volumes. To boost their capacity, some facilities have implemented artificial intelligence (AI) empowered robots that can sort items significantly faster than humans. An added bonus to reducing the human workforce is safety—MRFs frequently have some of the industry’s highest injury and illness incidence rates.
Investing in Domestic Solutions
China’s ban on foreign plastics has exposed the frailty of a single-supplier global recycling model, and is forcing many countries to begin developing their domestic infrastructure.
One emerging leader in this space is the EU, which has passed ambitious legislation to promote recycling industry investment. Recognizing the unsustainability of single-use plastics, the EU has mandated its member states to achieve a 90% collection rate for plastic bottles by 2029. It’s also set a target for all plastic packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2030, an initiative that could create up to 200,000 new jobs.
Aside from the environmental benefits, the global recycling industry could also be a source of economic growth. It’s estimated that between 2018 and 2024 that it will grow at a CAGR of 8.6% to reach $63 billion.
Vegetarianism: Tapping Into the Meatless Revolution
This graphic unearths the origins of the meatless revolution, while exploring how the $1.8 trillion meat market is responding to the threat of disruption.
Vegetarianism: Tapping into the Meatless Revolution
The way people choose and consume their food is changing, and it’s encouraging a sweeping shift from animal-based to plant-based food products.
Whether it’s from the perspective of environmental impact, cruelty to animals, or health benefits, meatless diets are quickly becoming a new normal for people around the world—but where did it all begin?
Today’s infographic unearths the origins of vegetarianism and explores how the industry erupted into a lucrative web of sub-categories that are whetting the appetite of investors the world over.
The Origins of the Meat-Free Diet
Taking a holistic view of vegetarianism, there are several different diets that people typically adhere to. A vegetarian for example, doesn’t eat meat but still consumes animal products such as dairy and eggs. On the other hand, a vegan eats a strictly plant-based diet.
With 70% of the global population now reducing their meat intake, veganism has become a lifestyle choice for many. By 2026, the global market is projected to be worth over $24 billion.
While this seems like a relatively new phenomenon, the meatless revolution has been quietly building for almost two centuries.
- 1847: The first vegetarian society is formed in England
- 1898: The world’s first vegetarian restaurant opens in Switzerland
- 1944: The term “vegan” is coined
- 1994: The first World Vegan Day is introduced
- 2014: Influential breakout documentary Cowspiracy is released
- 2017: 6% of the entire U.S. population claim to be vegan
- 2018: Roughly 8% of the global population claim to eat plant-based
- 2020: Acceptance of plant-based diets by both the medical community and general public is at an all-time high
Although vegetarian and vegan diets were once heavily stigmatized, global support is now growing.
Towards a Plant-Based Future
Today, people in dozens of countries are making big strides towards plant-based lifestyles.
China, for example, introduced guidelines to help its population of 1.3 billion people reduce their meat consumption by 50%. These ambitious goals will be driven by consumer’s growing understanding of the positive impacts of eating less meat, such as:
- Health benefits
According to the American Heart Association, reducing meat intake could reduce the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and even certain cancers.
- Environmental impact
Animal agriculture creates more greenhouse gases than the world’s entire transportation systems combined, but shifting to a plant-based diet could significantly reduce this problem.
- Animal welfare
Roughly two thirds of the 70 billion animals farmed annually are cramped in close quarters and given heavy medication. Plant-based diets eliminate animal suffering while lowering demand for other animal food products.
In fact, if more people commit to embracing a plant-based lifestyle, it could result in up to $31 trillion—or 13% of global GDP—in savings for the economy.
Big Players Fight For a Piece of the Pie
Given the newfound consumer demand for meat alternatives, it’s no surprise that global companies are clamouring to enter the market.
Many established food companies such as Nestlé and Danone are either advancing their own formula for plant-based proteins, or acquiring companies with existing experience.
Meanwhile, fast food chain McDonald’s features vegan products as permanent staple on their menu, and report an 80% uplift in customers buying these products in certain countries.
Big Meat Shifts Gears
As new players in the space attempt to cut into the $1.8 trillion global meat market, big meat companies are responding in kind.
Tycoons such as Tyson Foods and Cargill are placing bets on plant-based startups and filling shelves with their own plant-based products.
But while plant-based products created by traditional meat companies may appeal to less rigid flexitarians, vegans and vegetarians may not accept them so readily due to their strong ethics.
Food For Thought
Along with the uncertainty of how these products will be received, there are other challenges that the market must overcome in order to be considered truly accessible. For instance, plant-based alternatives boast higher price points than their predecessor’s products, which may deter consumers from entering en masse.
Regardless, it is clear that the shift to plant-based diets is a disruptive force that could change the food industry over the long term. Early movers are dangling a golden carrot in front of investors—but will they take a bite?
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