Nature and Biodiversity

How trade can help end plastic pollution

Trading ship sails carries hundreds of containers: Countries must understand trade in plastics and plastic value chains to tackle plastic pollution.

Countries must understand trade in plastics and plastic value chains to tackle plastic pollution. Image: Unsplash/Iain Taylor

Jeet Kar
Lead, Policy and Sustainable Trade, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Plastic Pollution

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  • Plastic pollution is transboundary due to global patterns of consumption and production.
  • Trade can form part of the solution to plastic pollution via trading agreements that support responsible plastic flows and circularity.
  • A summit in Uruguay will discuss establishing an internationally binding treaty on plastic pollution for the first time for delivery by 2024.

Government representatives are currently meeting in Uruguay to kickstart the first Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee (INC) on reaching an internationally binding treaty to end plastic pollution that the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) promised to deliver by 2024, otherwise known as the UNEA 5.2 resolution.

It is the first time the world will see multilateral action against plastic pollution on such a large scale as the transboundary nature of plastic pollution becomes increasingly evident.

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A cross-cutting problem

International trade and global value chains have dominated a substantial part of the discourse on plastic pollution and with good reason. Production and consumption patterns being global, there is a need for cross-sectoral and cross-value chain collaboration to render plastic action effective.

Domestic bans and restrictions on plastics will only work if implementing governments know the magnitude of plastic flowing into their economies via imports. In addition, illicit imports of plastic waste and waste dumping remain a concern. They choke the tenuous waste management systems in many developing countries and aggravate marine plastic pollution.

As trade is part of the reason plastic pollution is a transboundary crisis, it needs to be part of the solution, too. Shifting to a circular economy of plastics, besides its obvious benefits to the environment, also represents substantial economic gains (annual savings of over $200 billion globally, coupled with creating over 700,000 new jobs). For developing countries, trade can amplify this opportunity to grow sustainably by making markets larger and innovation cheaper.

Effective action

Trade can support circularity and plastic pollution action in many ways. Bilateral and plurilateral trade agreements are vital to instituting responsible international plastics flows, including embedded plastics. Such agreements can facilitate trade and create regional economies of scale in recycled, recyclable, reusable, and alternative polymers and substitutes, attracting investment in these fledgling sectors.

Further, trade agreements can actively promote product stewardship for plastic products like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes with a distinct demarcation of the responsibilities of importers and exporters vis-à-vis the waste they generate.

In countries like South Africa, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) is deepening its understanding of how trade policy can support circularity through standards harmonization, better recycling and substitution while looking to extend existing EPR regulations.

“We’re also forging new connections across our Trade and Environment departments to tackle plastic pollution,” it has stated.

Owing to its sheer magnitude, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) presents an unprecedented opportunity to codify circular economy principles into trade at the continental level. Countries can minimize technical barriers to trade through the development of common and mutually recognized standards to favour goods and services critical to circularity, in the process reaping economic dividends from enhanced trade.

For developing countries, it is important to have a holistic understanding of their plastic value chains and the economic weight of the sector for better-informed plastic action. This will promote sustainable production and consumption of plastics and enable their safe recyclability.

Hon. Marie Chantal Rwakazina, Ambassador of the Republic of Rwanda to Switzerland

The South Africa Bureau of Standards (SABS) is already developing fit-for-purpose benchmarks for the circular economy that can potentially feed into larger continental standards. Other regional blocs like the ASEAN and the Pacific Alliance can also drive plastic action at scale and enjoy economic benefits by harnessing the power of common markets and standards.

The Basel Convention, which subjects most transboundary plastic waste flows to mandatory consent from the importing country, can be another effective tool in curbing illegal plastic waste trade. Regional economic blocs can implement it in a coordinated fashion, minimizing plastic waste leakages that undermine national bans and restrictions. At the same time, the stipulations of the Convention can be leveraged to promote responsible international trade in plastic waste, fast-tracking consent for waste flows that can grow the circular economy (e.g. recyclable and reusable packaging).

The plastic value chain

The role of trade in the circular economy also needs to extend beyond just goods. In the plastics value chain, several services are crucial for realizing circularity.

Research and development services are essential in the product design and material sourcing stages to favour reuse-based models and pivot away from fossil-fuel-based virgin polymers. Similarly, waste collection, sorting and recycling services are vital in the post-consumption stage. Testing laboratories, certification and labelling services are all needed to ensure compliance with laws on recycling, reuse and material composition. Trade agreements should increasingly bring these services under remit to eliminate friction in their cross-border exchange and spur much-needed innovation.

As countries prepare for negotiations that will eventually shape an international plastic pollution treaty, insights and tools – to gauge trade in plastics and understand plastic value chains – are imperative. Such insights will ground the treaty discussions in evidence and offer a systemic, economy-wide perspective on plastic action for informed policymaking. The UNEA 5.2 resolution is historic and a testament to positive international cooperation to solve common challenges plaguing the planet. For it to meaningfully deliver on eradicating plastic pollution everywhere and without detriment to livelihoods, trade must be a cornerstone of the solution. A new Informal Dialogue on Plastics Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade at the World Trade Organization (WTO) among 70-plus countries offers another exciting opportunity for countries to discuss these issues in the year ahead.

“For developing countries, it is important to have a holistic understanding of their plastic value chains and the economic weight of the sector for better-informed plastic action,” said Hon. Marie Chantal Rwakazina, Ambassador of the Republic of Rwanda to Switzerland, recently. “This will promote sustainable production and consumption of plastics and enable their safe recyclability.”

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