I would like to thank the Graduate Institute for this invitation to offer introductory remarks on “Trade and trade policy in the fight against plastic pollution: What are the challenges and opportunities?”.

Those of us in the WTO community, the several hundreds of individuals in the Secretariat which I am here representing today, the Ambassadors and their missions of the 164 WTO Members, and the representatives of over 20 countries seeking entry into the WTO, with those in capitals whose task is to instruct their missions here, all have one central purpose as stewards of the international trading system, to assure that trade, the life blood of the world economy, underwrites the well-being of the world’s peoples.

The tools that the trading system started out with were very basic — remove quantitative restrictions, lower tariffs, and live by a few very basic principles — non-discrimination, transparency, and a handful of others identified most recently last week by the G20 Trade Ministers pursuant to Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh Initiative.

With the creation of the WTO 25 years ago, WTO Members broadened their horizons to understand the need for stewardship of the planet. The objective of sustainable development is in the very first paragraph of our founding agreement. The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 provided added momentum, most clearly in the case of seeking to discipline fisheries subsidies – the one negotiation that all 164 WTO Members are committed to bring to a successful conclusion within a matter of months.

We in Geneva are fortunate to have in this panel a number of experts on another emerging area of trade concern for our Members — plastics pollution. Had the pandemic not disrupted the course of events this year, our Members would have been gathered in Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan, in June, and a subject that would have been on the agenda of many attendees would have been exploring the linkages between plastics pollution and trade.

That 12th Ministerial will now take place in 2021. This panel can help further the discussion about what the WTO can contribute to this issue.


My first point is coherence.

Tackling plastic pollution and moving towards better plastics trade will require coordination and collective action along the entire supply chain from a range of stakeholders, including policymakers, producers and consumers.

Trade and trade policy can be part of the solution. Trade policies can help promote trade in goods and services that support broader efforts to reduce plastic pollution. Trade could also provide opportunities to gain access to world-class waste management solutions and to participate in supply chains for less-polluting alternatives. Trade can help to scale up solutions that facilitate a transition to a sustainable and circular plastics economy.

Policy coherence is required to harness the opportunities and minimize the challenges. In the WTO, the Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE) offers a valuable and unique platform to explore the mutual supportiveness of trade and environmental policies. Over the years, the Committee has become a key  channel of communication, coordination and cooperation between the global trading system and several Multilateral Environment Agreements (MEAs), not least the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions.(1) What we are learning from our work with theseConventions and others is that there are many worthy efforts currently underway to tackle plastics pollution, which underscores the need to think carefully and creatively about what the WTO could do to support and boost these efforts.


This brings me to my second point — transparency.(2)  

Trade regulations, import, export or transit restrictions, public procurement practices, border or internal taxes and subsidies as incentives are some of the tools in the trade policy toolkit that could be deployed to help address plastic pollution. Transparency can help share knowledge and best practices, increasing predictability in trade relations. Shedding light on measures that will be or are being taken can also help curb disguised trade protection.

That is why the WTO Secretariat spends considerable effort to make available the WTO Environmental Database (EDB), a unique window into all environment-related notifications submitted by WTO Members, along with the environmental measures mentioned in WTO Trade Policy Reviews. Between 2009 and 2018, WTO members notified 128 measures affecting trade in plastics for environmental reasons. By helping to keep track of trade measures to combat plastic pollution, the Database provides a factual basis to inform evidence-based discussions on what national governments are already doing and where further action or coordination may be needed.(3) 

Pathways for Action

My third point is about action.

Challenges create opportunities. The disruption caused by the pandemic is an opportunity to consider how the trading system can best respond to crises — which in that case consists of dealing with a scarcity of medical goods. If it is agreed by our Members that plastics pollution is a global crisis requiring concerted trade action, the WTO community can consider options for concrete actions that the WTO can take in the trade field to expand opportunities and overcome challenges to reduce plastic pollution.

WTO member-led initiatives and discussions, including at the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment, on the cross-border implications of plastic pollution, have raised awareness of the trade dimensions and provided a platform to share experiences and best practices. The Committee has also been discussing the broader theme of circular economy, not least what trade facilitating measures would be needed to support reverse supply chains. These discussions can inform Members of how a WTO plastics initiative at the next Ministerial (MC12) scheduled in 2021 could contribute.

Trade and trade policy could also accelerate technology dissemination and spur R&D for better plastics trade. Members may wish to consider reviving the Environmental Goods Agreement as a powerful tool to facilitate trade in environmental goods and services, including less-polluting alternatives and inputs to biodegradable plastics.

Today’s panel, bringing together expertise on promising initiatives that exist and that could be launched, can contribute to moving the problem of plastics pollution toward solutions relevant to the WTO's work. I look forward to hearing your ideas and suggestions.

  1. CTE members have benefitted from regular briefings including from the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions secretariat. In this context, the recent Basel Amendments , which come into force next year, have been welcomed. back to text
  2. At the global level, there are over 250 MEAs in force, of which about 20 deploy trade measures to meet a wide variety of environmental policy objectives. Transparency tools like UNEP's InforMEA and the WTO MEA Matrix are useful to keep abreast of the landscape and developments in MEAs (including the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) Conventions). Work is ongoing to improve the synergies and add the trade dimension to the InforMEA platform. back to text
  3. WTO Environmental Database: back to text



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