Nature and Biodiversity

Charted: The key countries that trade in global plastic waste

Every year, nations worldwide produce around 350 million metric tons of plastic waste.

Every year, nations worldwide produce around 350 million metric tons of plastic waste. Image: REUTERS/Richard Chung

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  • Every year, nations worldwide produce around 350 million metric tons of plastic waste.
  • Only a fraction of this waste is recycled, says Visual Capitalist, and just 2% is traded internationally.
  • This graphic reveals just how much plastic waste is traded across borders, and which countries are estimated to export and import the most of it.
Graphic showing where plastic waste is traded around the world
Exporting spare plastic waste helps manage a part of a country's plastic emissions more cheaply. Image: Our World In Data.

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.

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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.

Graphic showing plastic waste exports, 2007-2021
Research has found that higher plastic waste imports have positively impacted the economic growth of many low-income countries. Image: Our World In Data.

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.

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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:

Graphic showing the world's top plastic waste exporters in 2020.
Europe exports nearly 80% of the world’s traded plastic waste. Image: Visual Capitalist.

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 SAR, 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:

Graphic showing the world's top plastic waste importers in 2020.
Malaysia and Türkiye have become the world’s largest plastic waste importers. Image: Visual Capitalist.

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.

Graphic showing share of global plastic waste imports, 2007-2021
In 2018, China's plastic waste imports dropped by over 95% within a year. Image: Our World In Data.

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).

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