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Jul 8, 2019 | 09:30 GMT

3 mins read

Mapping the Flow of the World's Plastic Waste

Plastic waste litters the shore of a reservoir in Lhokseumawe, Indonesia, on June 28, 2019.
(ZICK MAULANA/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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By Iman Ghosh, for Visual Capitalist

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.

A graphic illustrating what happens to the world's plastic waste.

The Top Exporters and Importers of Plastic Waste

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.

A chart showing the top four exporters and top four importers of plastic waste.

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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