INFORMAL DIALOGUE ON PLASTICS POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE PLASTICS TRADE

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Ambassador Jose Valencia (Ecuador) and Ambassador Chad Blackman (Barbados), two of the six co-coordinators of the IDP, invited members to explore the topics of assessing policy coherence, collective approaches and developing countries' needs for capacity building.

It is crucial to identify how trade policy can complement efforts at the international, regional and domestic levels to tackle plastics pollution, the two co-ordinators said. They stressed that members should keep in mind recent policies adopted and important milestones to be reached in 2021, such as COP 26 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in November and COP 15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity in October.

Ambassador Chenggang Li of China, another IDP co-coordinator, reiterated the importance of building synergies between the IDP and international processes and invited members to start deliberating on the structure of a MC12 declaration. This could include key results from discussions at the IDP and a roadmap towards achieving concrete outcomes at MC13, he said. He also noted the importance of ensuring synergies with other environmental sustainability initiatives at the WTO, including the Structured Discussions on Trade and Environmental Sustainability.

The WTO Secretariat stressed that addressing the plastics pollution issue required a comprehensive mapping of the plastics value chain and analysis of the opportunities and challenges it presents. Following the launch of the IDP in November 2020, members' engagement in discussions on plastics had quadrupled, including in meetings of the Committee on Trade and Environment. This had resulted in many members sharing studies and experiences on topics such as marine litter, plastics pollution, and public-private partnerships in the transition to a circular economy.  

A number of guest speakers presented their recent studies, projects and lessons learned in the fight against plastics pollution. Researchers from Australia and New Zealand introduced their study on “Plastic pollution prevention in Pacific Island countries: Gap analysis of current legislation, policies and plans”. The study finds that due to the transboundary flows of plastics, the Pacific Island countries need international support regardless of the effectiveness of their national policy frameworks.

The European Union briefed participants on its experience in transitioning to a circular plastics economy through policies such as the EU plastics strategy, the single-use plastic directive and the zero-pollution strategy.  Norway's Ministry of Climate and Environment introduced a study on the role of regional instruments in strengthening cooperation on marine plastics pollution and reaffirmed the need for reaching a new global agreement. The World Economic Forum's Global Plastic Action Partnership presented its work in Ghana and its trade-related recommendations to the government to support a more circular plastics economy. The International Organization for Standardization presented its work on plastics-related standards in support of greater policy coherence, efficiency and circularity.

Participants agreed that the plastics issue is a global challenge requiring multilateral solutions for which the WTO could play a central role. One member said one of the greatest challenges that the WTO could help address is the inconsistency of policies along the plastics value chain. It was imperative, therefore, to have a clear mapping of supply chains and existing requirements, such as customs classifications.

Some members noted the importance of starting negotiations on a global plastics agreement under the UN Environment Assembly while ensuring IDP discussions support any international outcome.

Single-use plastics were identified by a few members as a major threat to the ecosystem. They called for coordinated efforts to restrict unnecessary single-use plastics while encouraging the use of eco-friendly alternatives. The design of plastic products and packaging also need to be addressed, some members pointed out. 

Other members reiterated the need for strengthening technical assistance for least-developed countries and small island developing countries. Key elements of the discussions in the IDP should be included in the MC12 declaration, said some members. This could include enhanced transparency, greater regulatory cooperation across supply chains and encouraging environmentally responsible trade. 

The United Nations Environment Programme said the WTO could provide much-needed trade regulations on the production and consumption of plastics goods. The Graduate Institute presented its report containing recommendations on how international trade policy can help tackle plastic pollution, such as trade bans for single-use plastics and eliminating trade barriers on non-plastic substitutes. Several other invited stakeholders also took the floor to share their views and suggestions.

Ambassador Chad Blackman said the fruitful discussions have generated some key elements for formulating an MC12 outcome and taking the dialogue forward. The need for technical assistance and capacity building is critical, he said, encouraging all WTO members to participate in the IDP to address this. The next IDP meeting will be chaired by Australia and will focus on the MC12 outcome, he said, reiterating that all members are invited to join.

Background

Launched in November 2020 by a group of WTO members, the Informal Dialogue seeks to address the rising environmental, health and economic cost of plastics pollution. It currently has 16 co-sponsors and is open to all WTO members. The aim of the group is to complement discussions in the WTO's Committee on Trade and Environment and other fora.

Key topics identified by the proponents  to be discussed in 2021 include: improving transparency; monitoring trade trends; promoting best practices; strengthening policy coherence; identifying the scope for collective approaches; assessing capacity and technical assistance needs; and cooperating with other international processes and efforts.

The 16 WTO members who currently co-sponsor the informal dialogue are: Australia, Barbados, Cabo Verde, Canada, Central African Republic, China, Ecuador, Fiji, The Gambia, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Morocco, New Zealand, Switzerland, Thailand and the United Kingdom.

Co-coordinators of the initiative are Australia, Barbados, China, Ecuador, Fiji and Morocco.

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