Where Does Most Plastic Come From, & End Up?

Plastic waste has become an important issue in recent decades.

Knowing the source and destination of of plastic can go some way to helping us getting a better understanding of the issue.

In this guide, we outline where most plastic comes from, and ends up.


Summary – Where Does Most Plastic Come From, & End Up?

Most single use plastic has a high wastage rate and comes from the packaging sector.

In Western countries, this plastic mostly ends up in landfill (although hard plastic is recycled in many states in developed countries).

Some of it can end up on beaches and in our oceans though.

In countries without organised waste management systems, plastic pollution can be a big issue either via littering, or uncontained plastic waste.

East Asia and the Pacific contribute to 60% of global mismanaged plastic (improperly disposed of or not fully contained plastic), and Asia is responsible for 86% of rivers that carry plastics into the ocean.


Where Does Most Plastic Come From?

Plastic comes in different types.

There’s single use plastics which have a very short lifetime usage, and other harder plastics that can be used for decades (have a much longer lifetime usage).

Some sectors and industries might produce and use a lot of plastic, but produce far less waste – because the plastic they use has a high lifetime usage rate. Construction is an example of this.


When talking about sectors that generate the most plastic waste, packaging comes out on top:

Packaging – 141 million tonnes

Other sectors – 42 million tonnes

Textiles – 38 million tonnes

Consumer & Institutional Products – 37 million tonnes

Transportation – 17 million tonnes

Electrical/Electronic – 13 million tonnes

Building & Construction – 13 million tonnes

Industrial Machinery – 1 million tonnes

– ourworldindata.org


You can view a graph that details plastic production by polymer type here – https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/plastic-waste-polymer 


Where Does Most Plastic End Up?

In 2015, 55% of global plastic waste was discarded to landfill, 25.5% was incinerated, and 19.5% was recycled.

[although, if current rates maintain themselves, almost all plastic in the future will be either recycled or incinerated, with landfill making up a very small overall % of plastic waste disposal. This of course is not a given though and does involve different variables.]

– ourworldindata.org


Note though that once plastic is disposed of, it can end up elsewhere other than just landfills if mismanaged.


If we look at global mismanaged plastic waste (plastic that is littered or uncontained i.e. more of a risk to contributing to plastic pollution outside of landfills, incineration or recycling) by region in 2010, East Asia and the Pacific comes out with the most mismanaged plastic:

East Asia and The Pacific – 60%

South Asia – 11%

Sub Saharan Africa – 8.9%

Middle East & North Africa – 8.3%

Latin America & Caribbean – 7.2%

Europe & Central Asia – 3.6%

North America – 0.9%

– ourworldindata.org


Rivers are an example of a source that can carry uncontained plastic into oceans.

If we look at where (geographically) rivers are located that carry some of the most plastic in into the ocean, we see a trend:

The top 20 polluting rivers accounted for more than two-thirds (67 percent) of the global annual river input.

Geographically we see that the majority of the top 20 rivers are located in Asia.

86 percent of river inputs were from Asia; 8 percent from Africa; 5 from South America; and combined Europe, North America and Australia-Pacific were just over 1 percent.

– ourworldindata.org


… rivers collectively dump anywhere from 0.47 million to 2.75 million metric tons of plastic into the seas every year, depending on the data used in the models.

The 10 rivers that carry 93 percent of that trash are the Yangtze, Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, Indus and Ganges Delta in Asia, and the Niger and Nile in Africa.

– scientificamerican.com


Read more about plastic items that are found in our oceans, and on our beaches:

Most Common Types Of Waste Found On Our Beaches & In Our Oceans


Global Trend For Plastics Production

Global plastics production has been increasing almost every year.


In the year 2000, 213 million tonnes of plastic was produced, and in 2015, 381 million tonnes was produced.

– ourworldindata.org



Something that is less talked about is microplastics – because microplastics can be hard to track and quantify.

When plastics are disposed of, they break down into very small polymers called microplastics.

These microplastics get everywhere – on our beaches, in our water supplies (which we use for washing and to drink), in our food supplies (via fish and other animals), in our oceans and more.



1. https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics

2. https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution#mismanaged-plastic-by-region 

3. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/stemming-the-plastic-tide-10-rivers-contribute-most-of-the-plastic-in-the-oceans/

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