INFORMAL DIALOGUE ON PLASTICS POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE PLASTICS TRADE

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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 14 participants 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 (CTE) and other fora.

Director-General Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala welcomed the discussions, saying the work on plastics and trade forms an important part of the sustainability agenda and the “blue economy” agenda at the WTO. Highlighting the negative impact of plastic waste on the environment,  she stressed that the initiative is gaining support at the WTO from a cross-section of the membership. She drew attention to some of the global efforts to reduce plastic waste and build a sustainable blue economy, saying that the initiative raised the right questions about the potential contribution of trade and the WTO to these efforts.  

DG Okonjo-Iweala said: “Trade can and must play a role in ensuring the transition towards an environmentally sustainable plastics economy. … Trade is a great vector for ensuring efficient, environmentally friendly solutions to find their way to where they are needed the most.” 

“Trade can offer the economies of scale necessary for innovative companies to reach markets and spread their solutions. Several specific trade policies can have a positive impact in this transition, such as harmonized standards, carefully crafted regulations and trade facilitation measures,” the DG added.

Encouraging members to deliver an outcome at MC12, DG Okonjo-Iweala said she believes that proponents' work “has the potential to show that the WTO can address complex, 21st century challenges of concern to the general public”.   

Transparency and international cooperation were the main topics of discussion at the meeting. Participants sought to identify where data is missing and to learn about what other international organizations and stakeholders are doing to explore the role that trade and the WTO could play in support of international efforts.

Ambassador Chenggang Li of China, one of the coordinators of the group, said that the WTO's focus should be on studying the production and use of plastics across their life cycle. He highlighted the need to include sustainability as one of the topics of discussion for WTO reform and to make progress at MC12.  

Chargé d'Affaires  Anare Leweniqila of Fiji, another coordinator of the group, said the trade community must make collective efforts to address the global problem of plastic waste. He invited all WTO members to provide comments on the two documents (a concept note and the roadmap) circulated by proponents on 24 March to help members move towards a tangible outcome at the 12th Ministerial Conference. The concept note concerns the technical work to be undertaken to improve transparency and international cooperation in the area of trade in plastics. The roadmap proposes a ministerial declaration as a potential outcome at MC12.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the WTO Secretariat outlined some of the challenges in collecting data about trade in plastics.  UNCTAD described its joint study with the Graduate Institute covering trade data across the entire life cycle of plastics — from raw inputs to final plastic products and waste. The WTO Secretariat provided information on members' notifications on measures related to trade in plastics, noting that the majority of the 129 measures identified in the WTO Environmental Database were notified in the last few years.  The Secretariat also noted that around half of the measures were notified in draft format, indicating the potential for further enhancing voluntary peer-learning and sharing of best practices.

Deputy Permanent Representative Ms Patricia Ann Homes of Australia, a coordinator of the group, said transparency is key to filling in the information gap in policy and regulations. She said the WTO Secretariat could assist in collecting relevant information. She also indicated that Australia intends to engage with the private sector to acquire more information about consumers' concerns.

Barbados's WTO ambassador, Chad Blackman, another coordinator of the group, suggested the WTO could complement existing work by creating a central platform for monitoring and evaluating developments in global plastic production, trade flow and supply chains. He reiterated the importance of concerted actions in dealing with this global issue and invited all WTO members to join the initiative.

Ambassador Jose Valencia from Ecuador, a coordinator of the group, emphasized the important role of international cooperation, saying that besides setting standards, there is a need to for nations to cooperate and to develop new technologies.

Several WTO members took the floor to reaffirm the importance of factual-based discussions supported by data and shared their domestic experience and perspectives. Some suggested that the Informal Dialogue should also discuss eliminating any imbalance or disadvantage faced by developing countries regarding the global plastics economy. Members were cautioned against duplicating what has been done in other international initiatives when defining the scope of the discussions for this initiative. Participants also discussed the proponents' roadmap and the possible deliverables for MC12 to be held in Geneva in the week of 29 November 2021. Some members supported the idea of having a factual report and reaching a Ministerial Declaration on the issue by MC12.

Regarding international cooperation, several organizations took the floor to share their experiences and to explore cooperation with the initiative.  The United Nations Environment Programme expressed its intention to synergize work under the Basel Convention concerning plastics with the work at the WTO through collaboration with the Informal Dialogue to address plastic pollution coherently and efficiently.  

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shared information on the upcoming Global Plastics Outlook — a tool kit to take stock of relevant trade policies and to project future scenarios — as well as its work on monitoring the transboundary movement of waste. The World Economic Forum introduced its multi-stakeholder initiative, the Global Plastics Action Partnership, and the pilot case study in Ghana to help advance national plastics action strategies. The International Institute for Sustainable Development suggested that the Informal Dialogue take some concrete measures to improve transparency on trade in plastics and offered its help to support developing countries' actions.

In conclusion, Ambassador Omar Zniber of Morocco, a coordinator of the group, suggested that the discussions on transparency and international cooperation continue.  The information collected through this exercise “could serve as a basis for a factual report in support of a declaration at MC12. … We highly encourage WTO members to join and co-sponsor the initiative to deepen the discussion about this issue,” he said.

Next step

The next meeting will once again take place back-to-back with the CTE meeting, potentially in June. The co-sponsors will discuss some of the other topics identified by the group. These include strengthening policy coherence, assessing capacity and technical assistance needs and identifying the scope for collective approaches.

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