Where Does Our Plastic Waste Go?

Many reports, including the one published in 2016 by the Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, listed these top 5 countries as the most prominent plastic polluters: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Ironically, four out of five of these countries contribute the least to annual carbon emissions worldwide.

There are multiple reasons why these countries are coined to be the “biggest plastic polluters,” including the mishandling of plastic waste, inaccessibility to sustainable goods, or outcomes of consumerism and capitalism. Out of curiosity, I wonder why reports usually end up with these rankings. After investigating, I found out that there is a coin often unturned. The plastic waste found in these countries does not entirely belong to them.


Until 2018, China managed to buy recyclable plastic waste from many western countries like the US, Britain, and Germany, among many others, to transform these into new products sold back worldwide. However, the problems of contamination and pollution forced them to ban the importation of plastic waste. They declared they would no longer buy plastic waste that is not 99.5% clean or pure, leading to the US and other western countries scrambling to offload their trash elsewhere.

“Instead of taking responsibility for their waste, US companies are exploiting developing countries that lack the regulation to protect themselves,” said John Hocevar, Oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA.

Many Western countries grew into the practice of dumping their waste on different soil. In a recent report by the Guardian in 2019, they discovered how US waste travels overseas and overwhelms the world’s poorest nations. They found that thousands of tons of US plastic are shipped annually to poorly regulated developing countries because of recycling’s labor-intensive process.

Last 2018, they discovered that the US exported 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling to developing countries like Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia, and Senegal. These countries became a hotspot for US plastic recycling because of the cheap labor and limited environmental regulations. Aside from the US, the European Union is also a significant contributor to plastic waste.

Now, this poses a new question: Is recycling an effective way of combatting plastic pollution?

The Complicated Relationship of Plastic and Climate Change

When we first think about plastic, what usually comes to mind is where they end up after disposal. We know that many of our plastic pollutions, especially single-use plastic, end up in our oceans, waterways, and landfills. The way plastic makes almost everything convenient for us subsequently poses a danger to our marine life and clogs our landfills. But do you know about its genesis? 

Plastic and Climate Change

Scientists project that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fishes in our seas. Plastic is genuinely one of the most persistent pollutants present in different ecosystems, and they would live longer than any of us. Most single-use plastic lasts for 400 years or more. At the beginning of its “life,” plastic creates greenhouse gas emissions that harm our atmosphere and contribute to global warming. They continue to emit more once they are exposed to sunlight and heat for a long period of time.

According to this article by WWF Australia, “almost all plastic is derived from materials (like ethylene and propylene) made from fossil fuels (mostly oil and gas).” There are billions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses released in our atmosphere when we extract fossil fuels and manufacture different kinds of plastics. 

The problem doesn’t end there. In its lifetime, plastic enters different ecosystems. Our relationship with plastic causes an extra level of harm to our environment. Let me share with you some of these facts according to SeedScientific.com:

  • Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year. 
  • The world uses 500 billion single-use plastic bags every year.
  • A plastic bag is used for only 15 minutes on average but can last for a millennium.
  • 91% of all the plastic ever created has not been recycled.
  • Among the grimmest plastic pollution facts of 2019 is that no beach on the planet today is free of plastic trash
  • By 2050, landfill plastic waste will be 35,000x as heavy as the Empire State Building.

What can we do?

There has to be a systemic change in curbing plastic production and recycling plastic waste globally. We must proactively appeal to our government leaders to stop greenhouse gas emissions exacerbating climate change in all sectors. At a local level, reducing our plastic use and practicing a more sustainable lifestyle are some of the things we can collectively do to slow down the effects of climate change. Here in Barrel Bag, we offer eco-friendly and sustainable cleanup bags made from fabric made of recycled plastic. We also hold virtual cleanups during the pandemic to avoid plastic accumulation in our oceans, waterways, and even just in our neighborhood. We must continue educating ourselves on the effects of our current behaviors and reevaluate the practices that we do that brought us here in the first place.





Virtual Clean Up Results

Despite being in quarantine, our Barrel Bag community was able to collect 227 cubic feet of plastic and 59 cubic feet of trash.

Congratulations to our giveaway winners @sea_dreamer_ for participating in the most cleanups and @kendraperrycoaching for collecting the most trash!

Thank you so much to our community members, partners, & our entire team for joining our movement and leading the way to keep our environment clean. If you’re bummed you didn’t win, don’t worry, we will be hosting another Virtual Cleanup soon! Follow us on Instagram @barrelbag for updates!

The Reality of California’s Plastic Bag Pollution Situation

In this “mockumentary”, Academy Award-winner Jeremy Irons, narrates the harsh reality of California’s plastic pollution. Let us know your insights!


Credit Video name: The Majestic Plastic Bag by Heal The Bay

Credit Link: www.healthebay.org


4 Main Ways Harmful Trash ends up in the Ocean


When trash or recyclables are transported from residential trashcans and/or commercial dumpsters to landfills or recycling facilities. Oftentimes, people place trash and recyclables into overflowing bins, attracting unwanted or other wildlife scavengers, causing the excess debris to be carried or blown away and scattered onto the streets, beaches, waterways etc.


Litter thrown on the streets is carried by wind and rainwater into storm drains. Te polluted runoff flows into our streams and rivers, and eventually into the ocean. In California, storm drains are not connected to wastewater treatment plants, which means litter which enters the storm drains goes straight into the ocean.


When we wash our clothes in the washing machine, fabric microfibers (some of which may contain plastics) are released. These microbers go down our drains into wastwater treatment plants. They are too small to be filteres out by wastwater treatments and end up being released into our waterways.


Fishermen lose and/or irresponsibly abandon their fishing gear-including nets and ropes because of stroms, other passing vessels, or simply abandon them because they are old and worn out. Sometimes, people on boats throw their trash overboard, or trash accidentally falls, gets blown or washed off vessels into the water.