12 October 2022
Tackling the Plastic Pollution Crisis: Crafting Trade Policy Solutions
Photo Credit: Atonie Giret on Unsplash
story highlights

During the 2022 WTO’s Public Forum, IISD, The Pew Charitable Trusts, IUCN, the Center for International Environmental Law, and the Forum on Trade, Environment, and the SDGs organized a session titled, ‘International Trade Co-operation to Address Plastic Pollution: Options and Pathways to Enhance Environmental Outcomes’.

Experts scoped out how severe the crisis is and could still become, unpacked international policymaking efforts already underway to respond to the crisis, looked at national-level challenges with data and the lessons these hold, and discussed where conversations among WTO members in Geneva can make a positive contribution.

By Sofia Baliño, Senior Manager, Communications and Engagement, IISD

The plastic pollution crisis has become increasingly prominent in the international policy conversation in recent years, amid a growing body of evidence that plastic waste is increasing and the buildup of plastic stocks in our natural environment is worsening. In response, there are now increasing efforts to determine what international frameworks and initiatives could help not just in stemming this crisis, but in undoing some of the damage. Discussions during a session at the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Public Forum in late September highlighted that trade can play a role in supporting these efforts.

Experts took a deep dive into the current state of global plastic pollution. They scoped out how severe the crisis is and could still become, unpacked international policymaking efforts already underway to respond to the crisis, looked at national-level challenges with data and the lessons these hold, and discussed where conversations among WTO members in Geneva can make a positive contribution.

The 29 September session titled, ‘International Trade Co-operation to Address Plastic Pollution: Options and Pathways to Enhance Environmental Outcomes,’ was organized jointly by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), The Pew Charitable Trusts, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), and the Forum on Trade, Environment, and the SDGs (TESS Forum).

“Recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) pointed out that plastic production has increased 230-fold since the 1950s. We were producing only 2 million tonnes of plastics then. We are up to 460 megatonnes of plastic in 2019,” said Ieva Baršauskaitė, Senior Policy Advisor, IISD, setting the stage for the discussions. “Plastic waste also doubled from 156 megatonnes in 2000 to 353 megatonnes in 2009. Both of those trends are continuing to move upwards after a slight halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. So this tide seems to really be rolling.”

This comes despite the efforts underway at the individual level to change personal habits, like recycling, or private sector efforts to introduce paper straws or other alternatives to single-use plastics, she noted.

International cooperation in the policy arena has a role to play in helping turn back that tide of plastic pollution, Baršauskaitė explained, including in the realm of trade.

Where we are: the current crisis and potential scenarios

This plastic crisis has already taken a heavy toll on our ocean, where such materials may never fully biodegrade, explained Ernesto Fernández Monge, Senior Officer, Conservation Support at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“By 2040, the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean could reach 600 million tonnes – nearly four times what it is today,” he told the audience. If business-as-usual (BAU) scenarios prevail, the results will be “grim,” he added. The production of plastics also leaves a heavy carbon footprint, counteracting efforts to achieve the reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are necessary to fulfill the objectives of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

By 2040, the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean could reach 600 million tonnes – nearly four times what it is today.

With virgin plastics being cheaper than recycled plastics, and insufficient investment in innovation that could help buck these trends, the road ahead is challenging. Yet there are options available to cut up to 80% of plastic pollution by 2040, with Pew research putting these measures in the categories of “reduce, substitute, recycle, and dispose.” This analysis, outlined in the 2020 report, ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave: Top Findings for Preventing Plastic Pollution,’ also makes clear that “the only way to achieve results and bend the curve is to implement all solutions,” rather than just a select few, Fernández Monge explained.

Between now and 2040, there are already some targets that the international community can aim for in achieving this system-wide change, such as by doubling recycling capacity and slashing plastic waste generation by 30% over the next two decades. “An integrated system change could achieve social, environmental, and economic benefits,” he said. These would include benefits to ocean health, along with cost savings to the tune of USD 70 billion for governments and USD 1.3 billion for businesses, by 2040. Cuts to GHGs and the creation of new jobs would also result from these changes.

“We have solutions to solve these problems if all stakeholders work together on implementing this [systemic] change,” Fernández Monge highlighted. This includes governments putting in place an enabling policy environment, which would include trade policy measures. International cooperation, including from civil society, will be key in making that happen, he stressed.

From MEAs to UNEA: International rule making so far

There are already a host of international cooperative efforts in place to help tackle the plastics crisis, from multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) to negotiations for a legally binding treaty on plastics pollution. The latter process was launched at the resumed fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) earlier this year in Nairobi, Kenya, with the first round of negotiations slated to begin at the end of November.

Helionor de Anzizu, an attorney specializing in international trade and investment law at CIEL, unpacked what the current international policy landscape looks like. The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) tasked with the plastic pollution treaty emerged after “the international community agreed that there is a gap in the international regulatory framework of plastics that has allowed the plastic crisis to develop, spread, and keep evolving.”

While the mandate for this treaty is set, it can also evolve and include further items, de Anzizu explained. The current INC mandate would: cover the entire lifecycle of plastics; regulate plastic pollution in, but not limited to, the marine environment; and “take into account the principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development,” referring to – the outcome document of the landmark 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development.

The treaty could also involve a blend of voluntary and mandatory approaches and would take into consideration countries’ varying circumstances, she noted. The current target date for concluding these negotiations is late 2024.

“Trade is not the cause of plastic pollution but it is a major element that we have to look at, discuss, and see how we want to negotiate trade elements in the [plastic pollution] treaty,” said de Anzizu. There are also lessons to learn about specific trade obligations that have already been included in other MEAs, such as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. These examples can show what approaches have worked well in the past and which ones have been less successful.

National data challenges and lessons for trade

To craft the right trade policy responses, having the right data at the national level is key, Janaka de Silva, Senior Programme Coordinator, Global Marine and Polar Programme, IUCN, told the audience. This will be important given that the plastic pollution treaty envisions the use of national action plans, he said.

Plastics exports have grown substantially in recent years, and new estimates indicate that these exports are far higher than originally understood, de Silva noted. Data from the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) found that these exports were worth over USD 1 trillion in 2018 alone. Much of that is plastic “in the primary form,” but there is also an increasing quantity of manufactured products being traded. “That means imports are coming in in a variety of forms, and assessing that impact at the national level can be a challenge.”

Yet it is crucial for setting a baseline against which any change can be assessed, he explained, which will be important for cutting back plastic pollution and determining the role for trade.

For instance, it will be necessary to measure elements such as the export of waste and the flows of materials into a country. Having the right Harmonized System (HS) codes and understanding what these codes mean for assessing the type and level of plastics being produced and traded is vital, he said. Also important is the quantity and quality of that information, and knowing whether to source this data from national or global databases.

Missing data hampers efforts to understand plastic flows in the economy. Another challenge is the lack of mechanisms to address these data gaps, de Silva explained.

“Trade data and understanding its quality and quantity is fundamental for developing good national action plans. Because without that information, you really do not have a good understanding of how that material is flowing through the system, where it is acting, and what can be done about it,” he said. Part of that is also having harmonized data and information, to “compare apples to apples, rather than apples to oranges.”

Talks among WTO members and the road ahead

In Geneva, talks have been underway among several WTO members for the past couple of years under an Informal Dialogue on Plastics Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade, often referred to in trade shorthand as “the IDP,” to look at how trade cooperation can help tackle plastic pollution and enable a transition to circularity in plastics.

Trade ministers from WTO members involved in this process endorsed a ministerial statement in December 2021 setting out their plans for future work, such as sharing experiences on transitioning to a more circular plastics economy and developing a better sense of the global scale of plastics trade. The statement also makes clear that participating WTO members, which today number at over 70, plan to play a supportive role to other international processes, from the INC to implementation of the relevant MEAs.

Trade-related policies can and should be harnessed to address plastic pollution all along the plastics value chain.

“We really do need international cooperation between governments because the flow of plastics cuts across national borders, and different countries are taking different policies on their own, all of which will have trade implications, so there is a need for coordination,” said Mahesh Sugathan, Senior Policy Advisor, TESS Forum. Also important is making sure trade policy does not get in the way and incorporating the development dimension in the conversations about what trade policy responses are needed.

With sights set on the WTO’s Thirteenth Ministerial Conference (MC13) to develop more concrete outcomes, there are now three workstreams under the IDP. Participating members confirmed these workstreams in early 2022. The workstreams cover cross-cutting issues, including technical assistance and capacity building; cooperation with international organizations and processes, with inputs from external stakeholders such as civil society and the private sector; reducing plastic pollution and ensuring circularity; and promoting environmentally sustainable plastics trade.

Since then, Sugathan explained, there has been extensive work underway in Geneva, including plenary sessions, intersessional meetings, and an updated ministerial statement circulated by IDP coordinators in June at MC12 setting out various “early harvest” steps planned in the lead-up to MC13.

“Trade-related policies can and should be harnessed to address plastic pollution all along the plastics value chain,” reflecting a “comprehensive lifecycle approach,” said Sugathan. International cooperation measures must go alongside these policies to ensure they succeed, and this cooperation can take place within forums such as the INC and the IDP.

“Just as the WTO cannot address plastic pollution on its own, environmental ministries and other international environmental organizations cannot come up with comprehensive solutions to the plastic pollution crisis without taking global trade and multilateral trade rules into account. This is why the WTO’s expertise and input are so critical to this process,” Sugathan concluded.

The video broadcast of this WTO Public Forum session is available on the WTO website.

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