INFORMAL DIALOGUE ON PLASTICS POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE PLASTICS TRADE
The meeting also heard an update from the Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) — a UN negotiating body responsible for crafting a new legally binding agreement by the end of 2024 to end plastics pollution — about its first negotiating meeting held last week in Uruguay. Co-sponsors reiterated the vow to continue enhancing cooperation between the WTO and the INC and to make trade-related contributions to this important negotiation process.
Stocktaking of the Dialogue's work in 2022
Three co-coordinators of the Dialogue — Ecuador, China and Barbados — reviewed the substantive work done in 2022 under three workstreams launched in line with the Dialogue's Ministerial Statement. The three workstreams include circularity and reduction to tackle plastic pollution, promoting trade to tackle plastic pollution and crosscutting issues to foster collaboration. Noting a series of meetings conducted in various configurations, they touted the strong support from 75 WTO members and the active engagement of more than 40 external stakeholders.
Ecuador, also the chair of the meeting, highlighted the importance of the transparency exercise launched in the Dialogue, notably referring to two ongoing surveys regarding trade-related plastics measures (TrPMs) analysis and the needs assessment of developing and least developed countries (LDCs) along with extensive information-sharing among stakeholders regularly. This process serves as a solid basis for seeking convergence and taking trade action in fighting plastic pollution, it said.
China laid out proposed steps for the coming year, stressing deeper cooperation between the WTO and the INC as well as with other international initiatives, more deep-dive technical discussions on specific topics, such as single-use plastics substitutes, packaging and waste management, and continuing engaging least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states so that the Dialogue can help address their plastic challenges financially and technically.
Barbados shared the perspective of Caribbean states who are facing stifling threats from overwhelming plastic pollution. It called for mindset and regulatory changes and unleashing more investment to promote the use of plastics alternatives. It noted the importance of further knowledge sharing, thinking creatively and utilizing locally abundant resources, such as seaweed, to replace plastics.
Workshop on plastics substitutes and alternatives
The workshop, organized by the WTO in cooperation with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), was the first of its kind in the context of the Dialogue, with a clear goal of seeking concrete solutions to tackling the plastics problem.
Participants heard presentations from both organizations, including a factual summary on the topic and the latest UNCTAD analysis on trends in plastic trade, which has grown 20% in a short time span to USD 1.2 trillion per year, as well as on the potential for a significant increase in trade in alternatives and substitutes, which amounted to USD 335 billion in 2019.
The ensuing discussion boiled down to specific topics, which included how to better align definitions, such as single-use plastic products, substitutes and alternatives, assess their environmental and health impacts with a life-cycle approach, classify key materials in Harmonised System (HS) codes, and identify common trade-related measures to promote trade in environment-friendly materials.
The discussion highlighted the importance of the regional context when identifying the plastics alternatives, the need to capture a given material's footprint in packaging, final product, recycling and composting with labelling and other tracking tools, and the scope for enhanced cooperation with the World Customs Organization (WCO) by informing the ongoing HS codes reform with proposals.
Discussants also drew attention to some common principles and definitions that are applied in existing international instruments, such as microplastics and no-harm and “polluters pay” principles, and the importance of encouraging trade flows of waste-management technologies and mobilizing technical assistance for developing nations and LDCs.
Summing up, China said the timely and informative event opened the door for more solution-finding discussions, which will inform the ongoing negotiations at the INC and pave the way for tangible outcomes on plastics pollution mitigation at MC13.
Discussions on the way forward
The INC Secretariat briefed on its first negotiating meeting held last week, which set out the timeline of the upcoming negotiations towards the end of 2024, and outlined the key areas of the future talks, including, in particular, national action plans and financial support to developing countries.
Participants also heard a summary of the discussions at the Dialogue's last pre-plenary meeting, held on 17 November, where co-sponsors continued working across the three workstreams. Technical discussions had focused on single-use plastics and products, plastic packaging (in particular those associated with international trade), and waste management.
Many WTO members and external stakeholders took the floor, suggesting the Dialogue build on the substantive progress achieved in 2022 and consider more ambitious steps in the coming year.
Some called on the Dialogue to “ride the good waves” of the workshop on substitutes and alternatives to deepen the discussion and determine concrete trade-related advice. Some urged co-sponsors to hasten their replies to the surveys to enlarge the information reservoir.
Stakeholders hailed the openness and engagement of the Dialogue with technical experts, hoping it would serve as an example to other WTO processes. A suggestion was made to take the opportunity of the new wave of HS reform and prioritize a set of materials to be identified with new HS codes. There was also a call for the WTO to lend its continuous support to the INC while pursuing standalone outcomes within the framework of the Dialogue at MC13.
The chair, José Valencia (Ecuador), commended participants on the positive energy in the Dialogue and their readiness for more productive work ahead. He welcomed the high ambitions put forward and invited all stakeholders to work hard towards achieving the common goals. There is a great deal to do, and it is clear that our shared goals are to adopt various strategies to reduce, substitute, recycle and eliminate plastic pollution, he concluded.
The next plenary meeting of the Dialogue is slated for 13 March 2023.
Sustainable alternatives and substitutes exhibition
On the sidelines of the meeting, a small exhibition was held at the WTO, showcasing art, photos, and samples of plastic substitutes based on bamboo, cassava, birch, Kraft paper, seaweed and bagasse. A ‘tasting experience’ of edible water spheres was provided by Notpla, one of the private sector Workshop participants, to showcase the potential for seaweed and plant-based substitutes to plastic packaging and coating. The company has recently been awarded the 2022 Earthshot Prize by Prince William (United Kingdom) to continue to develop and scale up their plastic substitute solutions.
About the Plastics Dialogue
To date, 75 WTO members have joined the Dialogue, representing roughly 75% of the global plastics trade.
More information is available on the Dialogue's dedicated page.