The world has a plastic pollution crisis. Since 1950, humans have produced more than 8 billion tons of plastic, more than half of which went straight to landfills and only about 9% of which was recycled. Plastic can wreak slow-but-certain havoc on an environment in multiple ways, from leaching toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater to directly choking or poisoning animals who unwittingly ingest it. Larger, more populous countries tend to produce more plastic waste overall, but when the results are filtered to show the biggest producers per capita (i.e.: per person), the ranking changes significantly.
Top 10 Countries That Produce the Most Plastic Waste (Total million tons, 2016)
- United States — 34.02
- India — 26.33
- China — 21.60
- Brazil — 10.68
- Indonesia — 9.13
- Russia — 8.47
- Germany — 6.68
- United Kingdom — 6.47
- Mexico — 5.90
- Japan — 4.88
Top 10 Countries That Produce the Most Plastic Waste per Capita (kilograms per person, 2016)
- Micronesia — 308.25
- Bermuda — 205.93
- Palau — 170.19
- Faroe Islands — 167.53
- Hong Kong — 163.45
- Saint Kitts and Nevis — 150.01
- Iceland — 144.80
- Singapore — 143.96
- Mongolia — 137.58
- Puerto Rico — 134.10
Plastic pollution in the ocean
While plastic waste on land is undeniably a concern, a large percentage of plastic that isn’t recycled, incinerated (which emits pollutants), or sent to landfills ultimately ends up in the oceans, where it creates even larger problems. Plastic in the ocean can injure some animals outright and is frequently—and fatally—mistaken for food by others. For example, in 2019, a young Cuvier's beaked whale washed ashore in the Philippines and soon died. A necropsy revealed its stomach was clogged by more than 88 pounds (40 kg) of plastic trash. A similar tragedy occurred in Greece in 2021.
While many high-income countries generate high amounts of plastic waste per person, they are also typically better at processing it safely, whereas middle-income and low-income countries still developing their infrastructure tend to produce a higher percentage of mismanaged waste plastic, which is more likely to find its way from land into the ocean.
It is estimated that anywhere from 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year—but a 2017 study found that 80% of mismanaged plastic in the ocean came from just five Asian countries: China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. An updated study released in 2021 found similar results:
Top 10 Countries that Release the Most Plastic into the Ocean (tons 2021):
- Philippines — 356,371
- India — 126,513
- Malaysia — 73,098
- China — 70,707
- Indonesia — 56,333
- Brazil — 37,799
- Vietnam — 28,221
- Bangladesh — 24,640
- Thailand — 22,806
- Nigeria — 18,640
Per-country profiles in plastic pollution
In 2010, China produced the largest quantity of plastic at 59.08 million tons of plastic waste, nearly double that of the next-highest producer (the United States at 37.83 million tons). However, the country took decisive action to curb the creation of plastic waste, vowing to ban single-use, non-degradable bags in all major cities by the end of 2020 and in all cities and towns by 2022. Single-use plastic straws were also banned by the end of 2020.
By 2016, China's overall plastic waste production had fallen to 21.60 million tons, a reduction of nearly 28 million tons (for comparison, U.S. production fell less than 4 tons during the same time period). Moreover, despite being one of the largest overall producers of plastic waste, China's per capita production of plastic waste was one of the lowest in the world in 2016 at 15.6 kilograms a year per person.
At 34.02 million tons, the United States was the largest producer of plastic waste in the world in 2016. The United States burns about six times more plastic waste than it recycles, a process that often releases harmful chemicals into the atmosphere, increasing the country's greenhouse gas emissions.
The United States, as well as other countries like Canada and the U.K., is known for exporting collected plastic waste to countries in Asia, where it is then recycled or disposed of, often improperly. This can create a distorted impression of how much waste is actually being generated by both the sending and receiving countries.
Germany produced 14.48 million tons of plastic waste in 2010, including 31,239 tons of plastic litter that was at risk of entering waterways. Germany’s daily plastic waste per person is one of the highest in the world at .46 kilograms. However, by 2016, the country's plastic waste creation had fallen to 6.68 million tons. Germany’s Environment Ministry introduced a five-point plan in 2018 that aims to further reduce the country’s plastic waste.
Brazil, the fifth-largest country in the world, is also its fourth-largest producer of plastic waste. Brazil generates about 10.68 million tons of plastic waste per year and is estimated to recycle only 1.28% of its total plastic waste, meaning that the overwhelming majority ends up incinerated, buried in landfills, or polluting the land and sea.
Japan generated roughly 4.88 tons of plastic waste in 2016. Japan has more than 18,000 miles of coastline. Some point out that Japan’s obsession with hygiene causes many foods to be wrapped, rewrapped, and bagged in multiple layers of plastic. The Japanese government now has the goal of reducing plastic use by 25% by 2030.
Pakistan generated about 6.41 million tons of plastic waste in 2010, making it the sixth-largest producer of plastic waste, but fell to 16th in 2016 with a total of 2.73 million tons. Pakistan is also the sixth-largest country in the world. Pakistan is estimated to use about 55 million plastic bags annually. In August 2019, the Plastic-Bag Free Initiative was implemented to ban the manufacturing, sale, and purchase of plastic bags.
Russia's production rose from about 5.84 million tons of plastic waste in 2010 to nearly 8.47 million tons in 2016, making it one of the few countries whose production of plastic waste is increasing rather than decreasing. According to a report, up to 36.3 pieces of microplastic are found per kilogram of dry sediment in the Baltic Sea beaches in the Kaliningrad region. Local and volunteer-led efforts have started in Russia to help combat plastic pollution, but these efforts need to be scaled larger to be effective due to Russia’s size and population.
Turkey generated about 5.6 billion tons of plastic waste in 2010. The average use of plastic bags in Turkey is 440 per person per year. As of January 1, 2019, the country banned single-use plastic bags and transitioned to reusable and paper bags in an effort to reduce plastic pollution. Plastic bags now cost 0.25 Turkish liras (0.036 U.S. dollars).
Egypt was the tenth-largest producer of plastic waste in the world in 2010, generating about 5.46 million tons of plastic. Egypt was also the largest producer of plastic waste in the Arab world and the largest source of plastic pollution in the Mediterranean Sea.