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Source: Small Island Developing States

By Joe Zhang and Sofía Baliño

As the consequences of COVID-19 continue to be felt around the world, one of its unexpected impacts has been the increased use of single-use plastics, fueling concerns that plastic waste levels will grow with it. In parallel, the push by many governments to adopt measures at the domestic level to address this issue, which in some cases includes trade policy measures, requires better coordination to be effective.

Part of the COVID-19-related increase in single-use plastics comes from the rapid transition to online shopping instead of traditional in-shop purchases. This has increased by 6-10%, according to a recent survey by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and is likely to grow further in the holiday season. The pandemic also spurred the use of disposable products due to health and hygiene concerns, many of which are largely or entirely composed of plastics – such as utensils, bottles, wet wipes, masks, and other personal protective equipment.

There is no doubt that there are many benefits from the convenience of this workhorse synthetic material of the modern economy. It is hard to imagine living a plastic-free life, yet it is equally hard to ignore the environmental harm that reliance on plastic causes. Two-thirds of the plastic ever produced has been released into the environment, where it has remained and continued polluting.

According to a report published by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), in 2019 alone, the production and incineration of plastic contributed to 2.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The report forecasts that by 2050, GHG emissions from plastic will amount to 13% of the remaining global carbon budget.

Plastic has caused significant damage to biodiversity and ecosystems on land and in water. Scientists first documented in the 1960s the growing incidence of marine plastic pollution, which has devastated coral reefs and caused harm to over 800 marine species. Subsequently, marine plastics make their way through the food chain, affecting human and ecosystems’ health. Plastic also poses toxicity risks to human health at earlier stages of its lifecycle, including from fossil fuel extraction and consumer use.

Domestic solutions emerging

Given this context, governments around the world are exploring solutions to tackle plastic pollution, reduce plastic production and use, and transition to a circular economy for plastics. For example, China, which has imported 70% of the world’s plastic waste since 1992, announced in 2017 a ban on plastic waste imports. Soon, other countries in the region issued similar announcements.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), as of 2018, 99 countries had introduced regulations and measures to curb the use of plastic bags at national or sub-national levels, including what the media dubbed as the “world’s toughest law against plastic bags” adopted by Kenya in 2017 banning the production, sales, and use of plastic bags. In 2020, China, the world’s largest producer and one of the largest users of plastics, announced its plan to ban the use of single-use plastics across the country by 2022, with further details and timelines announced in recent months.

However, the adoption of these policies has been largely uncoordinated, raising serious obstacles and concerns over how to implement measures that implicate multiple jurisdictions. One concern has been trade in plastic waste, given the high volumes of waste exported abroad. As more countries adopt import restrictions on plastic waste, this waste is instead diverted to other countries that have laxer regulations in place.

As an attempt to address some of these challenges, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Basel Convention adopted its Plastic Waste Amendment in 2019, requiring countries to obtain “prior informed consent” from recipient countries before exporting hazardous plastic waste to them. The amendment also features other measures devoted to transparency and regulation, and clarifies when and how the Convention applies to such waste. It is now in force for 185 countries.

A role for trade policy?

At the World Trade Organization (WTO), some members are currently exploring the role the organization could play in tackling plastic pollution. The topic has been raised in the WTO’s Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), one of the institution’s regular bodies, and has also been the subject of informal discussions among interested member groups.

At a recent informal consultation on trade and plastic pollution attended by 46 WTO members, many supported the idea of launching a plastics initiative at the next Ministerial Conference (MC12). The Ministerial Conference is the highest decision-making body of the global trade club and is normally held biennially, though this timeframe has lately slipped due to the pandemic and other factors.

As a part of the WTO Trade and Environment Week in November, China and Fiji convened another informal dialogue on environmentally sustainable plastics trade. At that event, Australia, Barbados, Canada, China, Fiji, and Morocco launched the ‘Open-ended Informal Dialogue on Plastic Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade.’

According to the co-sponsors, this dialogue aims to complement existing international processes and to “explore how improved trade cooperation, within the rules and mechanisms of the WTO, could contribute to domestic, regional, and global efforts to reduce plastic pollution and transition to a more circular and environmentally sustainable global plastics economy.”

In parallel, nearly 50 WTO members backed a joint communication on trade and environmental sustainability, which launched informal “structured discussions” that are expected to kick off in 2021. While their scope is still being developed, many stakeholders have advocated for governments to turn their attention to trade policy options for enabling the transition to a circular economy. Another session during the WTO Trade and Environment Week looked at the successes and challenges to date from the Global Plastic Action Partnership, a multi-stakeholder initiative housed at the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The WTO member-led efforts are still in the early stages, and whether they will transform into negotiating processes remains to be seen. Ensuring that the sustainable development dimension is at the heart of these efforts, from initial conception to final execution, will be essential for achieving an outcome that is supportive of the SDGs and is in line with national needs and contexts.

WTO members’ intense interest in pursuing policy solutions through such cooperative efforts is encouraging, as is the push to develop a global trade policy framework to reduce plastic pollution. At the same time, a more fundamental rethink is required to transform the global plastic industry, as well as the extractives sector more broadly, from the linear mindset of “take, make, and dispose” to a more circular model. Transparency will be a key part of this effort, as stakeholders in both the private and public sector have indicated. This requires adequate data and monitoring of the current value chain, along with evidence-based research that can quantify the benefits of the circular model.

Also crucial in this effort will be the development of innovative designs and technologies that can offer practical alternatives to existing products, while ensuring that these technologies are not housed solely in advanced economies, but are also created and readily available in developing and least developed countries (LDCs). At the same time, the potential social impact of the transition cannot be underestimated. Vulnerable groups and communities involved in the traditional plastic value chain should be at the center of the transformation. As new production and consumption patterns create new jobs, it is imperative they are not be left behind.

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This policy brief was written by Joe Zhang, Senior Law Advisor, IISD, and Sofía Baliño, Communications and Editorial Manager, Economic Law and Policy, IISD. 

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