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Who produces the most plastic waste? The answer might surprise you…

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We all know by now that plastic is becoming a real problem for our environment. It doesn’t degrade, it’s choking our marine life, and there’s evidence that it’s ending up in the food that we’re eating.

In the previous article, we discussed what items are leading to the most plastic waste in our oceans. But who is responsible for producing most of that plastic waste in the world?

You might think that countries that are more industrialized produce more plastic waste because of their increased economic activity. And that is true, just look at the map below:

Plastic-Waste-Generation-Total

But these countries also tend to manage plastic waste quite well, i.e. they are able to collect it and prevent it from ending up where it shouldn't. Mismanaged plastic has a high risk of entering the oceans and doing real harm to our environment. Middle and low-income countries take the lions’ share of mismanaged plastic waste:

Mismanaged-global-waste

You might be thinking if you live in one of the more industrialized yellow nations on the map above, you’re in the clear. After all, your country manages waste properly. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case.

While those yellow industrialized nations do manage and recycle their plastic waste properly, a portion of that recycled plastic is exported to other countries, because it can be difficult to manage domestically. Before 2017, 72.4% of that plastic waste was imported into China and Hong Kong. If you look at the map again, you will see that China has the largest share of mismanaged plastic waste in the world….

Once it arrives into these countries, if the waste does not meet the criteria for usable recyclable plastic, or if contaminated by non-usable plastic products, that plastic waste is discarded. When this happens, that waste has a high likelihood of ending up in our oceans. As you can see, a big portion of the original “properly managed” plastic may end up in our oceans after all.

The graph below shows how much plastic waste was imported into China in 2016. As you can see, top industrialized countries such as the US, Japan, and Germany, are major exporters of that waste.

Plastic-Waste-Exports-China

In 2017, China put in place a permanent ban on importing non-industrial plastic waste. So what happens to all that plastic waste that used to go there? Industrialized countries now have to figure out what to do with all of that plastic waste, either by learning how to handle it domestically or exporting it to another country.

But more and more countries are now refusing to import plastic waste too. The best way forward is to reduce our plastic production and consumption, by finding alternative ways to live our lives without damaging our environment.

Check out how you can reduce your plastic waste by taking a look at our products.

Sources:
Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) - "Plastic Pollution". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution' [Online Resource]

Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., … & Law, K. L. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 347(6223), 768-771. Available at: 
http://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768.

Brooks, A. L., Wang, S., & Jambeck, J. R. (2018). The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade. Science Advances, 4(6), eaat0131. Available at: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/6/eaat0131.

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