Plastic Pollution Mapped Worldwide

When it comes to identifying where ocean plastic pollution comes from, there are many factors to consider: plastic production, waste treatment and types of plastic to name a few. Certain countries contribute more to plastic pollution than others and some countries face more consequences from plastic pollution than others. However, we are all in this together and need to do our bit to keep our planet healthy. Together we can make a difference to the plastic problem!

Here we’ll go through some maps that help visualise where plastic pollution is generated, where it’s more concentrated and where it often ends up …

Global plastic pollution mismanagement

mismanaged plastic waste mapped
Source : Our World in Data

This map shows that a high share of the world’s ocean plastic pollution originates in Asia. As you can see China contributes the most to mismanaged plastic waste, followed by Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. In this case mismanagement is defined as littered and inadequately disposed of waste (e.g. in open landfill sites).

However, it is unfair to only blame these countries for the plastic in our oceans. For example, huge volumes of plastic from Europe & the US is exported to these countries as part of so called ‘successful’ waste management plans.

More resent research has taken into account these waste exports and also illegal dumping, leading to a different picture of the top plastic polluters. The study by Law et al (2020) showed that the US and the UK were actually the 2 nations with the highest total plastic pollution production per capita.

When the researchers went on to estimate how much of each country’s plastic waste ends up in the oceans then Indonesia and India ranked highest. This makes sense when you consider the rapid development that has taken place in these countries and that a large volume of plastic is exported to these locations too. The waste management infrastructure has just not been able to keep up with demand!

Coastal plastic pollution littered

map of littered plastic pollution
Source : Our World in Data

This map shows the amount of plastic waste littered by coastal populations within 50 km of a coastline. This plastic has high probability to end up in the oceans transported on the winds or via waterways and rains.

As you can see the USA, China, and Japan, are the worst offenders in terms of littering. Contributing a huge volume of plastic pollution just from not disposing of personal rubbish responsibly!

Marine plastic pollution clean-up efforts

ocean plastic cleanup efforts mapped
Source : Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni via GridA

In contrast with the previous negative map, in this one we can see who’s taking part in coastal cleanups. This is what we love to see here at Ocean Mimic! Check out how you can get involved with our cleanups and more here

Countries who present the highest number of volunteers include the Philippines, countries in the Caribbean, USA, Canada, Ecuador, Peru and Chile. Great job guys!

It’s interesting to see that as well as contributing the most waste via littering, the USA also has a large number of volunteers helping to clean up this litter.

Plastic input into the oceans

coastal plastic & fishing inputs for plastic waste mapped
Source : Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni via GridA

This map registers in a qualitative way the information of the first map in combination with the debris coming from fishing activities, represented by yellow dots.

It is easy to observe that the majority of fishing activity puts plastic into the ocean in the Pacific Ocean, around the whole region of Indonesia. Other risky areas are the Andaman Sea, seas around Sri Lanka, Turkey’s region, north of Spain, and the Baltic Sea. All these regions practice intense fishing activities and as a result of inefficient environmental practices, tons of plastics go into the ocean.

Ocean Microplastic Concentration

microplastic mapped
Source : Riccardo Pravettoni and Philippe Rekacewicz via GridA

To conclude with the static maps, this one shows the kilograms of microplastic per square km. The darker areas in the map have a high density of microplastics, showing areas such as the North Pacific, South Atlantic, South China Sea and the East region of the Mediterranean Sea, have the greatest concentration of microplastic. This map also highlights the role ocean currents play in distributing plastic throughout the ocean and how it spreads.

Interactive Plastic Pollution Maps

Last but not least, there are two interactive debris maps that are worth a visit and provide worldwide information.

The Global Plastic Navigator allows you to add additional layers of information (e.g. mismanaged plastic waste or ocean currents) to get a full picture all in one.

Sailing Seas of Plastic also provides similar information and classifies the plastic particles by size too.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Evidence in these maps shows that there is not a clear connection between the countries that pollute the most and the plastic distribution in our oceans. What we can say is, that due to the marine currents, multitude of plastic inputs and bad waste treatments, practically the entire world suffers from plastic contamination.

The scientific community and environmental activists have been raising their voices and sounding alarms about the plastic crisis for years now and it does seem like politicians and (some) companies are finally starting to wake up.

We can all also individually do our bit. Change really does need to start at home! It’s in everybody’s hands to Recycle and Reuse, but above all Reduce plastic usage and pollution.

Read – Sustainable living tips for saving the planet for more on what you could do to help.


Our World in Data

Visual Capitalist


The Guardian

Science Advances – Law et al. 2020

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