Charting the Movement of Global Plastic Waste
Every year, nations worldwide produce around 350 million metric tons of plastic waste. This is equivalent to over 10 million fully loaded garbage trucks.
Most of this plastic waste is either incinerated or sent to landfills, thus eventually polluting our air, land, and oceans . Only a fraction of this waste is recycled, and contrary to popular belief, just 2% is traded internationally.
This graphic by Our World in Data uses data from OECD and UN Comtrade to reveal just how much plastic waste is traded across borders, and which countries are estimated to export and import the most of it.
Why Trade Waste?
Though most plastic waste is managed and recycled within countries, exporting spare waste helps manage a part of their plastic emissions more cheaply and reduces pressure on local recycling facilities and landfills.
Importing plastics, on the other hand, comes with certain financial benefits too. Repurposing recycled plastics into goods is a far cheaper option for industries that would otherwise rely on buying newly manufactured expensive plastics. And many countries differ when it comes to their specific plastic recycling capabilities and needs, so while they might export some plastic waste, they also import others that are useful.
Research has even found that higher plastic waste imports have positively impacted the economic growth of many low-income countries, in the right circumstances.
However, when countries export unusable and non-recyclable contaminated plastics, these same low-income nations may see the end-of-life ecosystem costs outweigh any financial benefits.
The World’s Biggest Plastic Importers and Exporters
With its reported plastic waste exports nearing four million metric tons, Europe exports nearly 80% of the world’s traded plastic waste. However, as most is reportedly exported to other European nations, it is also the largest importing region.
Here are the world’s top plastic waste exporters in 2020 according to UN Comtrade data:
|Rank||Country||Exported Plastic Waste (2020)|
|4||United Kingdom||560,986,540 kg|
|13||China, Hong Kong SAR||112,080,263 kg|
|29||Other Asia, nes||43,457,341 kg|
|30||Viet Nam||37,175,812 kg|
|35||Republic of Korea||28,904,472 kg|
|37||Russian Federation||25,644,305 kg|
|39||Saudi Arabia||23,481,323 kg|
|40||New Zealand||22,480,990 kg|
|46||Dominican Republic||14,719,180 kg|
|48||United Republic of Tanzania||14,479,176 kg|
|57||Costa Rica||8,825,189 kg|
|59||El Salvador||7,419,495 kg|
|63||Bosnia Herzegovina||6,007,289 kg|
|74||United Arab Emirates||3,772,818 kg|
|76||North Macedonia||3,477,001 kg|
|78||Lao People's Democratic Republic||3,124,150 kg|
|86||South Africa||2,079,115 kg|
|96||Burkina Faso||1,225,000 kg|
|99||Bolivia (Plurinational State of)||740,180 kg|
|100||Trinidad and Tobago||658,955 kg|
|103||French Polynesia||577,460 kg|
|104||Sri Lanka||483,401 kg|
|109||China, Macao SAR||350,362 kg|
|116||Republic of Moldova||169,735 kg|
|121||Brunei Darussalam||39,660 kg|
|123||Cayman Isds||1,435 kg|
|126||Democratic Republic of the Congo||33 kg|
Due to political reasons, UN Comtrade includes Taiwan data under “Other Asia, not elsewhere specified.”
Germany , which is the world’s largest exporter of plastic scraps and waste at 854 million kilograms , relies primarily on the Netherlands, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Türkiye, and Malaysia to manage this plastic waste.
Asia’s largest plastic exports are from Japan , which trades primarily with other Asian countries including Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea. In 2020, Japan was the world’s second-largest plastic waste exporter with 821 million kilograms shipped.
Third on this list is the United States . The country is estimated to have exported more than 600 million kilograms of plastic waste in 2020, and while a majority was traded with Canada, a portion also went to Mexico, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Hong Kong, and Indonesia.
And on the receiving end, Malaysia and Türkiye have become the world’s largest plastic waste importers, primarily from within their respective regions:
|Rank||Country||Imported Plastic Waste (2020)|
|4||Viet Nam||440,706,678 kg|
|8||Other Asia, nes||230,934,455 kg|
|11||China, Hong Kong SAR||186,629,825 kg|
|17||United Kingdom||144,482,263 kg|
|21||Rep. of Korea||97,893,699 kg|
|34||Russian Federation||31,817,270 kg|
|40||Bosnia Herzegovina||21,829,094 kg|
|52||El Salvador||9,934,333 kg|
|54||South Africa||8,290,544 kg|
|55||United Arab Emirates||8,194,024 kg|
|61||Saudi Arabia||7,772,952 kg|
|68||New Zealand||4,986,243 kg|
|69||Lao People's Dem. Rep.||4,896,151 kg|
|78||United Rep. of Tanzania||2,801,914 kg|
|79||Costa Rica||2,584,350 kg|
|83||South Sudan||1,709,764 kg|
|86||Sri Lanka||1,502,126 kg|
|88||North Macedonia||1,126,010 kg|
|89||CÃ´te d'Ivoire||939,404 kg|
|90||Dominican Rep.||768,374 kg|
|109||Areas, nes||366,189 kg|
|115||Burkina Faso||193,232 kg|
|122||Democratic Republic of the Congo||147,105 kg|
|129||Brunei Darussalam||83,517 kg|
|133||Democratic People's Republic of Korea||66,000 kg|
|135||Cayman Isds||52,513 kg|
|136||Equatorial Guinea||44,051 kg|
|137||Bolivia (Plurinational State of)||42,858 kg|
|140||Trinidad and Tobago||31,811 kg|
|147||Saint Helena||19,587 kg|
|153||Saint Lucia||10,739 kg|
|155||Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||8,281 kg|
|162||Turks and Caicos Isds||3,453 kg|
|166||Faeroe Isds||1,062 kg|
|171||Papua New Guinea||191 kg|
|173||Cabo Verde||100 kg|
|174||New Caledonia||73 kg|
|177||Cocos Isds||44 kg|
|178||Br. Virgin Isds||35 kg|
|179||Republic of Moldova||31 kg|
|180||Saint Pierre and Miquelon||5 kg|
|183||Sierra Leone||1 kg|
How the Plastic Waste Trade is Changing
Up until 2017, China was one of the world’s largest plastic waste importers, which it used for its manufacturing industries. In 2018, it imposed import bans on 24 types of recyclable waste, and their plastic waste imports dropped by over 95% within a year.
In 2019, 187 nations signed an international treaty called the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. Aimed at addressing the gaps in plastic waste disposal, this treaty restricts participating nations from trading plastic scraps internationally, unless it lacks sufficient recycling or disposal capacity.
And over the last decade, the global plastic trade has indeed declined tremendously. But millions of tons of plastic are still being shipped (and mismanaged).
This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program , which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.
Chart: Automakers’ Adoption of Fuel-Saving Technologies
See how 14 major automakers have adopted various fuel-saving technologies in this infographic based on EPA data.
Automakers’ Adoption of Fuel-Saving Technologies
Over the past few decades, automakers have invested plenty of time and money into various fuel-saving technologies. This includes innovations such as direct injection, cylinder deactivation, and auto start-stop features.
Keeping track of which companies have adopted these technologies can be difficult. Thankfully, the EPA’s 2022 Automotive Trends Report includes data that shows which automakers have adopted what technologies.
Understanding the Data
The percentages in this infographic show how 14 major automakers have adopted various fuel-saving technologies into their lineups. The report did not specify if this data is for North American models only.
|Brand||Turbo||Direct Injection||Cylinder Deact.||CVT||7+ Gears||Start-Stop||Hybrid||PHEV/EV/FC|
There are several geographical trends hidden within this dataset. To make them more obvious, we color-coded the 14 automakers by their nationality.
Starting from the top of the graphic, we can see that Japanese automakers are big proponents of gasoline direct injection (GDI) engines, as well as continuously variable transmissions (CVT).
With a GDI engine, fuel is injected directly into the combustion chamber at high pressure. This is more precise than the traditional method known as port injection, which results in greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions.
CVT transmissions use pulleys instead of gears to improve fuel efficiency. CVTs are best paired with smaller, lower output engines, which may explain why Japanese automakers (who have a history of building smaller cars) have adopted them so widely.
Note that Toyota is listed as having 0% adoption of direct injection, but this isn’t exactly true. The automaker uses its D4-S system, which is a combination of both port and direct fuel injection.
South Korean automakers, on the other hand, have a more balanced technology profile, adopting a wider number of technologies, but each to a lesser degree.
German automakers are well-known for their expertise in building combustion engines, so it’s no surprise they use turbocharging and direct injection in nearly every model.
They’ve also heavily adopted high gear-count transmissions (7 or more gears), which can not only enable better fuel efficiency, but also faster acceleration. The downside to these transmissions is that they can be very heavy and complex.
Furthermore, German automakers utilize the auto start-stop feature in many of their vehicles, and are tied with Toyota in terms of hybrid adoption.
American & Other Automakers
Ford and GM’s technology profile is similar to the Germans, using turbocharging and direct injection combined with 7+ gear transmissions.
GM uses turbocharging less frequently, but stands out with its high usage of cylinder deactivation technology, at 54% of models. Referred to by GM as Active Fuel Management (AFM), this feature shuts down half of the engine’s cylinders during light driving.
GM is known for its small-block V8 engines, which can be had in many of the company’s models. Given the high cylinder count of a V8, AFM is a clever trick for improving fuel efficiency.
Stellantis, which is a merger between Italian-American Fiat Chrysler and French Peugeot, has not widely adopted many technologies except for the 7+ gear transmission.
Finally there’s Tesla, which does not use any of the aforementioned technologies due to it being a pure electric automaker.
Going The Way of the Dinosaur
The technologies shown in this infographic have helped to bring the average mpg of a new car to record highs in recent years.
Many of these innovations could become obsolete as automakers slowly phase out gasoline engines. In 2021, six major automakers including Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and GM pledged to phase out the sale of new gasoline and diesel-powered cars by 2040.
Other companies such as Porsche believe that the combustion engine still has a future, pointing to synthetic fuels as a means of significantly reducing CO2 emissions.
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