Map Monday: what happens to all that plastic?

It was back in December when a fellow blogger, Kavitha at SunshinySA Site,
posted what for me was a sit-up-and-take-notice fact: Coca Cola scores hat trick as world’s worst plastic polluter worldwide.  Yes, for the third year in a row, Coca Cola labels were identified on discarded plastic trash more frequently by cleanup volunteers around the world than any other brand.  What a frightening unintended consequence of having such popular products.

[Click on any map to zoom in on details.]

This realization reminded me of the horrifying moment a few years ago when I learned that the plastic waste that we have all been conscientiously separating out and putting in recycling bins every other week hasn’t been recycled at all.  It’s been being sent to developing countries in Asia for them to recycle – or to put in their landfills instead of ours.  Huge percentages of plastic waste from the “wealthy” countries are collected and packed into shipping containers, then shipped from North America and Europe to Asia.  The shipping just adds to the pollution problem.  Unbelievable.

An excellent article on this topic can be found at Visual Capitalist.

Where the plastic waste is shipped from and where it’s shipped to. Those are just the top “exporters”, nearly every developed country ships some proportion of their waste. We’re exporting unwanted garbage instead of dealing with it. source:

Most ordinary everyday citizens didn’t know about this at all until finally some of the Asian countries decided they didn’t want to be in the business of handling our trash anymore and sent it back.  Why didn’t we know that our plastics weren’t actually being recycled at home at all, they were being shipped overseas?  Who would have thought to ask?

Some countries are doing a lot better than Canada with recycling their plastic, that’s for sure, but we all could be doing a lot better.  And in this pandemic year, far more single-use nondegradable items have been being used once only, be it plastic, Styrofoam or whatever, and then trashed, so as not to inadvertently spread the virus.  How are we managing this for the sake of our struggling planet?

Let’s take a look at the reality of waste generation and management around the world.


Future projections of worldwide waste generation

An excellent report on this subject can be found at

Which countries have introduced plastic bag bans or are in the process of doing so.

These maps paint a pretty sobering picture of just how irresponsible we’ve been about managing our waste, both how much we generate and how we dispose of it. We have lots of work to do.

In exploring narratives and maps that capture these challenges, one fact stood out above all others:

Humans have consumed more resources in the last 50 years than  in all of human history.

It’s up to us to step up in being responsible in managing that reality. For our children and for our planet.



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37 Responses to Map Monday: what happens to all that plastic?

  1. Sustain blog says:

    Wonderful account of what happens to plastic. Great maps! Thank you 😊

  2. Horrible indeed, thanks for the information. What are you suggesting as alternatives to this overconsumption of plastics?

    • Jane Fritz says:

      What an important question. Thank you. Well, I’m not an expert, but surely we could start by legislating some restrictions on packaging. Many items are hugely overpackaged, all with plastic, far more than is necessary. All that water and pop that comes in plastic could be required to be sold in something biodegradable. Coming up with biodegradable alternatives is key. You know, people in rural countrysides in developing countries used natural products for wrapping goods until the western world started shipping their bags of chips in plastic and foil and bottled pop, the remains of which of course ends up blowing in the wind, since there is no infrastructure or money for garbage pickup and disposal in these regions. Big change is needed. Science and public policy to the rescue.

  3. somekindof50 says:

    Thank you very much for sharing this horrifying info jane, It is as terrifying as it is disgusting. I will now share this post and its original wherever I can. Coca Cola need to wake up and take some responsibility!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      We share the same reaction, Karen. Now when I’m in a supermarket and see aisle after aisle of sugary drinks and bottled water in large plastic throwaway bottles – plus readily available in refrigerated units nearly everywhere you go – I shudder and wonder how we’ll ever break this cycle. So much to tackle.

  4. That is truly upsetting. I thought that Canada was taking care of its own plastic recycling, but clearly not. I recently saw on the news that a horrendous amount of PPE equipment, especially masks, are ending up on the streets and creating a lot of garbage. I see it nearly everyday in my area.

  5. Fascinating discussion points, as usual, Jane. I too had no idea that we export our recycling. I drive by these huge recycling facilities and just figured they were “taking care of it” (whatever that means!).

    On a tangential note, an old friend of mine and I were talking on the phone last fall about the then-lack of enthusiasm in young people to vote in the upcoming election to get rid of You Know Who in the White House. My friend (a fellow senior) said:”Okay fine. If they don’t vote, I’m not going to bother recycling ever again.” He was kidding thankfully, but I enjoyed the spirit of the moment. 🙂 – Marty

  6. Whoa, it’s a pretty sobering thought to see my country being the top global plastic importer (Malaysia). Out of sight out of mind indeed. What a great way to spread awareness. Thanks for this post!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Aha, so you’re in Malaysia, Stuart. The blogosphere is indeed worldwide! Yes, out of sight, out of mind on both ends. I only found out what “recycling” really meant in Canada when the Philippines refused to take shiploads of our plastic waste two years ago and made the refusal very public.

  7. Roy McCarthy says:

    Eye-opening Jane, though we might have guessed the worst but chose not to look. The fact is that consumers take little interest in the environment and it’s left to national governments to introduce and police appropriate measures. The Coca Colas of the world will pay lip service to their responsibilities and move at snail’s pace to packaging reform so as not to affect the bottom line. Ironic that the lowest of the low, the rag pickers of Asia, are better recyclers than anyone in the developed countries.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I agree that it’s up to the govts, because they’re the only ones with the clout and the money to ensure that both responsible policies AND implementations are in place. But when we are all given recycle bins, along with specific instructions on what to separate and put in which bins, and what days to put them out for collection, and we all dutifully do so, it doesn’t cross our mind that nothing (or not nearly enough) has been put in place to recycle it. Talk about misleading. The govts clearly need to get the message that this matters. Sigh.

  8. dfolstad58 says:

    Hi Jane, thank you for the time invested into creating this post.. I felt overwhelmed and shell shocked. I remember a news article about the Philippines sending back to Canada our trash but I had no idea how widespread the problem is.
    I know many Canadians care and try to be responsible but sometimes it feels to me like there is a lot of people who are so self-focused that that is all they see and their behavior shows it. I think many countries citizens put their self interests behind the community and it shows in a cleaner, more respectful lifestyle throughout.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      To be honest, David, I think this has to be more of a public policy issue rather than being left to individual choice. Bottled water, bottled pop, bottled juice, severely overpackaged produces – surely this could be regulated by govts so as to seriously reduce plastic use. It’s pretty disappointing that we’re shown the shrugging of shoulders and attempts to send recycling overseas without any public discussion. Sigh.

  9. Asian countries are returning the containers (still full) back to the UK, it’s our waste and our problem to solve! I’m trying to be more responsible but …………………

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Aha, that’s the same thing that happened with Canadian waste. That’s when most of us found out for the first time that we weren’t recycling at all, we were just foisting off our plastic waste on someone else. Surely our govts can step up to our responsibilities to our planet and establish proper recycling facilities. It seems that a few countries are doing quite well. Govts could also prohibit companies from using nondegradable plastic in their packaging. It’s difficult to find some needed items that aren’t seriously overpackaged.

  10. AMWatson207 says:

    Shocking. Embarrassing. We humans are so dangerous for so many reasons.

  11. AP2 says:

    ‘Humans have consumed more resources in the last 50 years than in all of human history.’ That’s frightening – it can’t last forever. Big changes are coming. We either get on the ship together or we sink. Thanks for encouraging us all to do what’s right Jane. Wishing you well 🙏

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Exactly, AP2. The big question is when govts are going to develop the backbones to make tough decisions instead of looking for easy cash. Looking the other way. We’re all going to pay in the end and of course the poor will pay the most.

  12. I’m with barryh. “The logic of the circular economy is a long way from realization.” Sigh. I am happy to report, however, that Maine does have a bottle deposit system and has had one for quite a while.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      We’re both with Barry, Laurie! I was surprised that most of the states don’t have bottle deposit programs (and most of the world), but glad to see New England all green (except NH?). Go, Maine!! 🙂

  13. barryh says:

    Thanks for shining a light, Jane. But quite horrifying. The logic of the circular economy is a long way from realisation.

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