Stakeholders considered the role of the WTO in enhancing transparency and strengthening international cooperation to support the transition to a circular economy and address the global plastic challenge.
Participants discussed visions for reducing, reusing, and recycling plastics.
An event, organized by France and the Netherlands, in the context of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade and Environment Week, discussed the role that international trade, its rules, and the WTO could play to mitigate the impact of plastics on the environment and support the development of a circular economy.
Sigrid Kaag, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Co-operation, the Netherlands, opened the discussion, highlighting the “important historic opportunity” we have to rebuild our economy in a sustainable, green, and inclusive way that addresses structural weaknesses and strengthens economic resilience in the face of climate change, in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “Unless we put green recovery in motion right now, we will lose this unique and historic opportunity to make a systemic change,” Kaag stated.
While plastic is a very useful material, Kaag said a significant amount ends up polluting oceans, and, according to a recent PEW study, the annual flow of plastic waste into the ocean could triple by 2040. She said reducing, reusing, and recycling single-use plastics and microplastics is key to combat environmental pollution. This, she noted, requires efforts by government, businesses, and other stakeholders, and highlighted the importance of international fora, such as the WTO, to enhance transparency and strengthen international cooperation, to support innovative ways of reusing goods and making products.
As such, the WTO plays an important role in the promotion and uptake of international standards and sustainability in trade, Kaag noted. However, she warned, for developing countries meeting those requirements can be a challenge, and called for investing in capacity building to transition to a circular economy.
Carolyn Deere Birkbeck, Senior Researcher, Global Governance Centre, Graduate Institute Geneva, urged focusing on how to transition from a wasteful, linear plastic economy towards an economy that is more sustainable, low-carbon, and circular, by managing waste better and reducing plastic. We “have enough creative and scientific power to use less of them, use them more intelligently, and to design them in better ways,” she said.
Deere Birkbeck highlighted the role of trade policy in helping create better incentives and markets for companies to consume, produce, and recycle plastic more sustainably. Over the last ten years, she said, the WTO identified 128 measures affecting trade in plastic introduced by members for environmental reasons, the majority of which were notified by developing countries.
She highlighted the recent launch at the WTO of an “informal dialogue on plastic pollution” to promote a more environmentally sustainable plastic trade, which brings together developed and developing countries. Deere Birkbeck underscored the WTO’s role in enabling governments to better understand their cooperation challenges and opportunities to contribute to the global effort to combat plastic pollution.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, Chief Executive, Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, shed light on the plastic situation in Bangladesh, a country on a fast development track, and the eighth most densely populated country in the world. She said plastic waste in Bangladesh increases at a rate of 7.5% per year, making it a “big challenge” for the country, and emphasized the role of trade in addressing its transboundary impacts.
Annick Boyen, VP Communications Global Markets and External Affairs EU, Unilever, stressed that “plastic has its place, but this is not the river but the circular economy where it needs to be reused and recycled.”
She highlighted Unilever’s pledge to halve the use of virgin plastic in packaging by 2025, with the goal to use “less plastic, better plastic, and no plastic at all” by, for example, eliminating plastic packaging where possible, concentrating packaging, or making packaging smaller, reusable, or refillable.
Boyen outlined Unilever’s efforts to support and improve the infrastructure needed for collecting and processing plastic in developing countries. In Indonesia, for example, local communities can access locations of nearby waste banks via Google Maps to recycle plastic waste and receive money in return.
Jocelyn Blériot, Executive Lead, Institutions, Governments and Cities, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, outlined the Foundation’s vision of the “new plastic economy” where plastic never become waste. This vision relies on three pillars: reduce plastic where possible; innovate to get the right material; and circulate all the plastic and create reuse models.
In conclusion, Franck Riester, Minister Delegate for Foreign Trade and Economic Attractiveness, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, France, reiterated the importance of a circular economy and the role of the WTO in addressing this challenge.
He said a WTO reform represents a critical opportunity to initiate a structural change where plastic is part of the agenda, and to deepen cooperation with the private sector and civil society.