The world must act now to find sustainable substitutes for plastics. Reducing plastics in world trade is key to tackling pollution, protecting our ocean and fighting climate change.
Global exports of plastics or goods made from plastic has more than doubled in value since 2005, passing the $1 trillion benchmark in 2018 and reaching nearly $1.2 trillion in 2021. The growth in volume has been slightly slower but followed a similar path – from 218 million metric tons in 2005 to 369 million in 2021.
This upsurge of plastics in global trade includes products made from plastic, like many children’s toys, products with plastic components, such as electronic gadgets and products wrapped in plastic – everything from office furniture to DVDs to snacks. It also includes the raw materials used to make plastics – mainly fossil fuels – and the waste shipped overseas that contain plastics, such as discarded smartphones.
According to UN estimates, about 75% of all plastic produced since 1950 has become waste. So a surge of plastic in trade could signal a mounting tide of plastic in our ocean.
How much is $1.2 trillion worth of plastics?
It would take 18.4 million trucks, each carrying 20 tons, to deliver the 369 million metric tons of plastics exported in 2021. The queue of trucks would wrap around the globe 13 times.
Another way to understand the magnitude of the global plastics trade is by comparing its value to that of the total goods exports of some of the world’s biggest trading nations. Only three countries – China, the United States and Germany – export more than $1.2 trillion worth of goods. So, if all the world’s plastics exports came from one country, say “plastic nation”, it would be the world’s fourth-largest exporter without trading any other goods.
The value of global plastics exports is also larger than the size of most national economies. For instance, it is about three times higher than the GDP of Egypt – the host country of the COP27 climate summit.
The UNCTADstat plastics trade dataset enables detailed analysis of trade over the life cycle of plastics – from the raw materials traded to the finished products and trade of plastic waste – by product type, destination and source. A life cycle analysis increases transparency and helps set baselines for policy commitments.
For instance, despite efforts to reduce their exports of plastic waste, developed economies remain net exporters and accounted for nearly 80% of the global plastic waste trade in 2021, the data shows.
Exporting plastic waste may be a way for some countries to deal with insufficient recycling capacities, but most of it is exported to developing countries, which have limited infrastructure to manage the waste in an environmentally sound manner.
Poor management of plastic waste has well-known negative impacts on the environment, with microplastics harming ecosystems around the globe – even in the Arctic. But tactics such as burning plastics also pump greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
At COP27, the world must act now to find sustainable substitutes for plastics. By embracing reusable, biodegradable and compostable plastic substitutes – such as natural fibers, agricultural waste, glass and aluminium – industries, businesses and consumers can help stem the tide of plastics crossing borders.
An UNCTAD event at the climate summit underlined that reducing the amount of plastic goods we trade – and ending the illegal trade in plastic waste – is key to tackling pollution, protecting our ocean and fighting climate change.