⦁ The WTO has a vital role to play in the trade-related aspects of tackling plastics pollution.
⦁ Governments are implementing positive and negative trade-related policies in relation to plastics.
⦁ Countries need to work cooperatively to support a more environmentally-sustainable global economy.
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Trade plays a central role in plastic pollution and in the global plastics economy. Amid impressive and multiplying efforts across the globe to address plastic pollution, however, the relevance of trade to the production, consumption and disposal of plastics has been underestimated. At the same time, the important ways that cooperation on trade and trade policies could support global efforts to reduce plastic pollution are yet to attract the focused attention they deserve.
The WTO – the core multilateral forum for cooperation on trade - has a vital role to play in supporting greater understanding, dialogue and action on the trade-related aspects of tackling plastics pollution. It is a uniquely positioned forum through which Member States could work together to support and complement inter-governmental efforts to reduce plastic pollution, including at the UN Environment Assembly and the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes.
The policy context
Policy attention to the nexus of plastic pollution and trade must be grounded in the following understandings:
⦁ While plastics are versatile, useful and cheap materials, with an impressive array of applications, many uses are excessive and unnecessary, as exemplified by many single-use plastics.
⦁ Business-as-usual predictions forecast a quadrupling of plastic production by 2050 and rising demand for plastics in growing developing country markets. Although many governments and stakeholders are scrambling to prevent, reduce and clean up plastic pollution, investors are meanwhile continuing to support new, expanded plastic production capacity, often with government support.
⦁ The price of plastic fails to reflect its environmental costs. The fossil fuel feedstocks and infrastructure vital to plastic production are heavily subsidized, for instance, resulting in the low prices of virgin plastic and many plastic products.
⦁ Plastic pollution occurs across the life cycle of plastics production, manufacture, use and disposal. The catch-all term "plastics" refers to a range of plastic polymers and applications, which have distinctive properties and purposes; present different recyclability and waste management challenges; and offer varying risks to the environment and human health.
Public outcry about the dramatic impacts of plastic litter and microplastics in the oceans has spurred greater attention to the multiple health, environmental and economic impacts of plastic pollution on land and in the air as well across the plastic life cycle.
To address the “downstream” challenges of plastic waste and pollution by businesses and consumers, we need to focus “upstream” on the production and use of polluting plastics in the first place – that is, on transforming the global plastics economy. Here, stronger attention to the nexus of trade and plastic pollution is vital for three reasons:
1. The significance of trade in the global plastics economy
International trade is significant across the life cycle of plastics and in plastic supply chains. There are important international trade flows in the fossil fuel feedstocks that are key inputs for 98% of the world’s plastic production as well as in primary/virgin plastics (in the form of pellets, resins, fibres), multiple plastic end-products, synthetic textiles, plastic packaging, products wrapped in plastic, plastic waste, secondary waste materials, and recycled plastic.
In 2015, for instance, total exports in primary forms of plastic reached 42% of the total volume of production that year. In addition, total exports in synthetic textiles reached 60% of the total volume of global production of synthetic textiles that year. Tens of millions of tonnes of plastic packaging are integral to thousands of products traded internationally each year, from electronic goods to bottled water, and chocolate bars.
Trade flows of "empty" plastic packaging (that is, shipping containers full of plastic packaging) alone account for almost 10% of plastic packaging produced annually. Plastic is also embodied in countless other products that are widely traded and consumed across the world – from cars to household appliances, children’s toys, and construction equipment, rubber tyres, and paints.
In the last few years, the fact that most of the massive and growing scale of plastic waste produced each year is not recycled has shocked consumers around the world. Rather it has been shipped across borders, winding up mostly in developing countries with little capacity to manage the ever-rising tide of plastic waste.
2. Trade policy dimensions of plastics pollution
Governments are implementing a range of trade-related measures and policies relevant to plastics production and pollution. The purposes of these efforts vary and can include:
⦁ Support for domestic plastics producers;
⦁ Support for exports of domestic plastic industries;
⦁ Reducing plastic pollution by restricting or banning imports of certain plastic products and waste on environmental grounds.
In 2018, the entry into force of China’s ban on imports of certain kinds of plastic waste spurred a massive reorganization of the global plastic waste trade. When waste trade flows shifted from China toward Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, India and Taiwan among others, these countries were equally unprepared for the volumes of incoming plastic waste, with some also implementing import bans and sending rubbish back.
Last year, rising concern about the environmental and economic challenges arising from poorly regulated plastic waste trade, especially for developing countries, spurred 180 governments to adopt the 2019 "Plastic Amendments" to the Basel Convention, signalling the powerful potential for trade-related policies to contribute to global efforts to reduce plastic pollution.
As of 2018, some 127 countries had legislation to regulate plastic bags, mostly in the form of restrictions on manufacturing, distribution, use and imports and to a lesser extent, fees and recycling targets.
Between 2009 to 2018, WTO Members notified 128 measures affecting trade in plastics for environmental reasons. This number has been growing, with 71 out of 128 notified in the last three years alone. Most measures – more than 80% - were notified by developing countries.
Other measures with important trade dimensions that could help support the economic transformation and transition required to reduce plastic pollution include:
⦁ the removal of subsidies that promote plastic production and trade;
⦁ environmental standards and labelling requirements for plastics;
⦁ government procurement policies to reduce use of single-use plastics;
⦁ extended producer responsibility schemes;
⦁ circular economy initiatives and related industrial policies, such as subsidies and tax incentives to spur recycling as well as innovation and technology transfer in plastic substitutes, more biodegradable plastics, and waste management technologies.
Spurred by stakeholder campaigns to "break free from plastic", a growing array of companies are advancing initiatives with important trade dimensions, including efforts to move towards a more circular economy for plastics and new commitments to disclose and reduce the plastic footprint of their global supply chains and distribution networks .
3. To achieve impact, countries need to work cooperatively
At present, the use of trade policy to help reduce plastic pollution is occurring in an uncoordinated and disjointed manner, thereby reducing effectiveness; and trade policy frameworks are not well aligned with the many domestic efforts underway around the world to tackle plastic pollution.
Looking forward, there are a number of concrete options for action on plastic pollution at the WTO that would support, reinforce and add value to cooperation in other international processes.
Options for a WTO Initiative on Plastic Pollution
⦁ Strengthen coherence between trade policy frameworks and domestic policies to reduce plastic pollution.
⦁ Reduce trade barriers for products and services that reduce and phase out plastic pollution, including alternatives to plastic products and technologies to improve waste management and boost recycling.
⦁ Encourage voluntary action on targets and pledges to reduce trade in problematic and harmful plastics, including single-use plastics; boost transparency and certification of plastic supply chains; and remove environmentally perverse subsidies to the production and export of plastics.
⦁ Promote transparency, monitoring and information-sharing on trends in plastic trade and supply chains, as well as on trade-related measures targeting plastics and plastic pollution.
⦁ Improve capacity building for trade-related aspects of reducing plastic pollution in developing countries and boost cooperation among the WTO Secretariat, Member States and other international organizations active on plastic pollution.
⦁ To advance dialogue and action on these options, like-minded WTO Member States should launch an Initiative on Plastic Pollution at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference in Kazakhstan in June 2020.
Critically, concerns about plastic pollution transcend the North-South divides that have long thwarted much-needed cooperation on trade and environment issues at the WTO.
Already China – as a major producer and exporter of plastics – is showing leadership, in drawing attention to the value that greater cooperation at the WTO could bring to international efforts to tackle plastic pollution. This presents an opportunity that should not be squandered.
At a time of uncertainty about the WTO’s role and relevance, a political decision to pursue concrete action on plastics pollution at the WTO could help build public confidence in the multilateral trading system’s ability to deliver on its core objective of sustainable development and support a more environmentally-sustainable global economy.