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  • Where Does Plastic Come From? - The $79 Billion Industry

Where Does Plastic Come From? - The $79 Billion Industry

Have you ever wondered where your plastic comes from? You may assume it comes from previously recycled waste, but it turns out that less than 10% of the world’s plastic is actually recycled. Far more of it is discarded, often shipped overseas. But policy changes in recipient countries are making waves in the global waste management market.

Where Does Plastic Come From?

  • Global plastic item exports were valued at $79 billion in 2018
  • The top four countries in exports alone (China, Germany, US and Italy) make up over half the plastic exports
  • Countries are scrambling to find places to ship plastic as China, a traditional recipient, has banned further imports
  • Regulatory changes worldwide have spurred changes in the plastic management market

The data from the International Trade Centre shows the total market value of plastic item exports for 2018 in U.S. Dollars. Our visualization is a map of this global market, with countries drawn to scale according to their exports. A darker shade of blue also indicates a higher export value. Only countries with more than $10 million in exports are mapped.

Top 10 Exporters of Plastic Items

1. China: $19.54B (24.73%)
2. Germany: $9.89B (12.51%)
3. United States of America: $7.23B (9.15%)
4. Italy: $3.32B (4.20%)
5. France: $3.00B (3.79%)
6. Poland: $2.29B (2.90%)
7. Netherlands: $2.17B (2.75%)
8. Japan: $2.17B (2.74%)
9. Czech Republic: $1.97B (2.49%)
10. Mexico: $1.96B (2.48%)

If so little of the world’s plastic is recycled, then where does it end up? Just five countries export over half of the world’s plastic items: China, the United States, and three western European countries. In fact, China itself makes up nearly a quarter of the exports market. But as early as 2016, China imported two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste exports.

So, what changed? To fight pollution and overfilled trash sites, China in early 2018 banned plastic waste imports, a defining moment in the shifting plastic waste exports industry. Other industrializing countries are beginning to follow suit in cutting back on plastic waste: for example, India just this week passed a sweeping ban on single-use plastics. It has already banned plastic waste imports. Industrialized countries are also cutting down on plastic waste: various plastic bans exist across the United States, and Canada is set to instate a ban on single-use plastics by 2021.

All the same, the world currently uses millions of tons of plastic, and it all has to go somewhere. Unfortunately, many of the developing countries which accept plastic imports, especially in the wake of China’s ban, do not have strict regulations on how to deal with this waste, and much of it ends up in the ocean. These countries, overwhelmed by the influx of plastic, do not have the infrastructure to process it.

To curb the possibility of irresponsible overseas plastic disposal, Australia has begun to ban plastic waste exports and Canada may be set to follow. On top of that, 180 nations agreed on a new UN accord to regulate the export of plastic waste.

So, where does that leave the plastic waste management? Large corporate consumers are looking to innovate away from its use: for example, McDonald’s is testing plastic-free stores. There is a push to incentivize innovations in plastic management such as clean incineration: for example, National Geographic has teamed up with impact investment fund Sky Ocean Ventures to launch a competition in plastic recycling innovations. Teams could win over a million dollars as part of the competition. So, if this article has gripped you to get involved, that’s not a bad incentive!

How much plastic does your country export? Did you ever wonder where it goes? What do you think will happen next in the plastic recycling market? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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