SPEECHES — DG ROBERTO AZEVÊDO

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Good morning everyone.

Let me start by thanking China, Morocco, and Sri Lanka for organising this workshop on plastic pollution and for inviting me to join you today.

Plastics are, I dare say, a defining material of our time. They are literally omnipresent in our lives, from our homes, to the way we buy and transport food, to the cell phones, computers, and other gadgets we probably spend too much time on.

The appeal of plastics is obvious: they are versatile, they are durable, they are cheap. This combination means we produce a lot of them. But the chemistry of plastics means that many are slow to degrade, at least to degrade naturally. High production and use, combined with slow degradation, means lots of plastic waste – and, unfortunately, plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution affects land, waterways, and oceans. Harmful chemicals can ooze out of certain plastics, contaminating soil and water. Marine animals can ingest or get tangled in plastic waste, leading to the heart-breaking images that have helped put this issue on the public radar screen.

Governments are acting at home to tackle plastic waste, particularly with regard to single-use plastics. As Ambassador Zhang just pointed out, the United Nations Environment Programme tells us that 127 countries have adopted legislation to regulate plastic bags. Sixty-one have adopted bans on the manufacture and/or import of plastic bags.

Some members have raised the cross-border implications of plastics pollution here at the WTO. Over the past three years, plastic pollution has repeatedly figured in the Committee on Trade and the Environment. Members have discussed their domestic policies to address plastics pollution, measures to prevent marine pollution, and trade in waste that contains plastics. And I understand plastic use may come up in the discussion on the circular economy planned for this week’s CTE.

Between 2009 and 2018, members notified 128 measures affecting trade in plastics for environmental reasons, mostly under the TBT Agreement. These included technical requirements related to waste management, import licensing schemes to control trade flows, and bans on single-use plastic items or shopping bags. Eighty per cent of these measures were notified by developing countries and LDCs.

Discussions here and elsewhere have spurred new thinking on potential international cooperation to address plastic pollution. One idea calls for tariff cuts on biopolymers and related products to lower the cost of plastic alternatives. Another idea seeks to foster policy coherence so that countries do not prohibit products at home while continuing to export them to other countries. Other ideas focus on regulatory cooperation and capacity building.

Today’s discussion on plastic pollution is another example of how members are engaging at the WTO on issues of relevance to today's world.

Whether and how to address plastic pollution at the WTO will ultimately be in your hands to determine.

Governments have taken action at the WTO to respond to other environmental issues with trade implications. As all of you know, members launched negotiations to curb harmful fisheries subsidies, and are now working towards an agreement that would help protect our marine environment. They have also sought to lower the cost of going green by reducing trade barriers to environmental goods.

Decisions on how to proceed will be yours to make. Members are in the driver's seat at the WTO. The Secretariat and I will be enthusiastic supporters in all environment-related efforts you decide to pursue.

I cannot unfortunately stay for today’s gathering, but this is an important issue for all of us and for future generations. I look forward to hearing about your discussions.

Thank you.

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