Plastics In The World’s Oceans – Part 3

In the third part of our series on the problem of plastics in the world’s oceans, we look at where most of the plastics that end up in our oceans actually comes from. This is not good news for Asia.

This series is based upon articles and data presented by Hannah Ritchie a Senior Researcher and Head of Research at Our World In Data. These articles would not be possible with their hardworking and generous sharing policies.

We’ve looked at the role of individual rivers, but how do these aggregate at the regional and country-level? Which countries emit the most plastic to the ocean?

Asia accounts for 81% of global plastic inputs to the ocean

In the chart we see the breakdown of global plastic inputs to the ocean by region. 81% of ocean plastics are emitted from Asia. The fact that a disproportionate amount of plastic pollution comes from Asia is consistent with previous research. Earlier studies estimated its share in 2010 was 86%. This should also not surprise us given the fact that Asia is the world’s most populous region (home to 60% of the world population); plus all of the top ten emitting rivers were in Asia (Philippines, India, and Malaysia), and most of the top 50. Africa was responsible for 8%; South America for 5.5%; North America for 4.5%; and Europe and Oceania combined were less than 1%.

More than one-third of ocean plastic inputs come from the Philippines

The distribution of plastic inputs is reflected on the world map. There we see each country’s share of global plastic emissions.

The Philippines accounts for more than one-third (36%) of plastic inputs – unsurprising given the fact that it’s home to seven of the top ten rivers. This is because the Philippines consists of many small islands where the majority of the population lives near the coast. But it’s an important update on our previous understanding of where China and India were thought to dominate. India accounts for 13%, and China for 7%.

People often find this global distribution surprising. Since consumers in rich countries tend to use a lot more plastic people expect that they contribute a lot more to plastic pollution than they actually do. And it’s not just about population size: even on a per capita basis, rich countries contribute very little plastic to the ocean. European countries, for example, emit less than 0.1 kilograms of plastic per person. This compares to 3.5 kilograms in the Philippines or 2.4 kilograms in Malaysia.

This relationship is shown on the scatterplot here: on the y-axis, we have per capita plastics emitted to the ocean, and on the x-axis, we have GDP per capita. We see the largest per capita contributors tend to lie in the middle of the income distribution.