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.