In the multi-pronged strategy to tackle the global plastic pollution problem, world leaders and policymakers should focus on one area that has thus far received only minor attention: international trade. That was one takeaway from a panel event that was co-hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts at the World Trade Organization (WTO) Public Forum. The Public Forum—which took place 27 to 30 September in Geneva, Switzerland—is the WTO’s largest annual outreach event, bringing together civil society, business, governments, and intergovernmental organizations to discuss issues related to world trade.
This year the United Nations Environment Assembly agreed to begin negotiations by 2024 on an international legally binding agreement to reduce plastic pollution. The timely discussions at the WTO Public Forum should contribute to those global treaty negotiations.
Plastic pollution has dramatically increased worldwide in recent decades, with about 11 million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean every year—roughly equivalent to one rubbish truckload of plastic every minute.
Fortunately, solutions are on the horizon. As Pew concluded in our 2020 report, Breaking the Plastic Wave, the amount of plastic pollution entering the ocean could be reduced by 80 per cent by 2040 using existing technologies and policy mechanisms. The panelists discussed some of the solutions that could be implemented at the national and international levels.
Caption: Pew’s Ernesto Fernández Monge (on screen) opens the panel discussion on trade and plastic pollution at the World Trade Organization Public Forum on 29 September. The panel was moderated by Ieva Baršauskaitė (far right) from the International Institute for Sustainable Development. She was joined by Hélionor De Anzizu from the Center for International Environmental Law, Janaka De Silva from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and Mahesh Sugathan from the Forum on Trade, Environment & the SDGs.
Pew’s Ernesto Fernández Monge laid out the need for systemic change, noting that no single solution would solve the global plastic problem, but rather that solutions are needed throughout the entire plastic value chain. He shared thoughts on what potential trade policy measures could help reduce plastic pollution, including bans on problematic plastics, reducing or removing tariffs on plastics substitutes, and transparent reporting on trade flows, to name a few.
Other speakers on the panel included Hélionor De Anzizu from the Center for International Environmental Law, Janaka De Silva from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and Mahesh Sugathan from the Forum on Trade, Environment & the SDGs (TESS). Ieva Baršauskaitė from the International Institute for Sustainable Development moderated the panel.
De Anzizu provided an overview of the plastics treaty process and what the treaty might cover, including provisions to promote national action plans on plastics and improved research, design and capacity building on sustainable plastic production and consumption. De Anzizu also noted the important role that trade plays in plastics pollution, for example, through trade restrictions, permit requirements, and monitoring and reporting of plastic waste. She said the inclusion of such trade provisions in the plastics treaty will be critical to ensuring that the treaty successfully achieves its goal.
IUCN’s De Silva highlighted the need for countries to track and report trade data on plastics to improve the mapping of plastic flows between countries. Identifying these trade flows are essential to understanding the plastic pollution problem and to developing international and regional solutions.
Sugathan from TESS discussed how the WTO’s 73-member Informal Dialogue on Plastics Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade is progressing discussions on how the WTO can best reduce plastic pollution and promote more environmentally sustainable trade in plastics.
Pew’s preventing ocean plastics project is informing discussions at the WTO and will continue to provide analyses and research on plastic trade policy. We are also working with countries to analyze plastics policy at the national level. Our recently developed Pathways tool, a free, online modelling application, can help countries quantify their plastic production and waste generation, as well as learn where it ends up, the potential impacts and costs of various policy solutions, and more.
Pew and its partners will continue our endeavors to prevent plastic pollution, knowing that civil society can play an important role in informing plastic policy. In gathering and interpreting data, convening stakeholders, and advocating for ambitious solutions, we aim to advance the dialogue to end plastic pollution by 2040, through the WTO and beyond.
Ernesto Fernández Monge works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ preventing ocean plastics and reducing harmful fisheries subsidies projects, and Megan Jungwiwattanaporn works on cross-campaign efforts within Pew’s conservation work.
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