New database helps track trade across the entire life cycle of plastics | News | SDG knowledge center
An event convened by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the Graduate Institute’s Global Governance Center (GGC), and the Forum on Trade, Environment and the SDGs (TESS) discussed ways of tracking trade across the life cycle of plastics . It was also the starting signal for an open online resource database on global trade flows across the life cycle of plastics.
As part of the Geneva Trade Week convened in support of the World Trade Organization (WTO) public forum 2021, the meeting took place on September 30, 2021.
The speakers presented the database developed by UNCTAD and researchers from the Graduate Institute in Geneva and presented a selection of the most important results to guidelines and regulations for reducing plastic pollution.
The database, which was derived from the database of the UN International Trade Statistics – UN Comtrade – and is based on official sources, records the breadth of trade across the life cycle of plastics by categorizing Harmonized Systems (HS) codes according to phase of the plastics life cycle : Inputs; Primary plastics; Intermediate molds made of plastic; Intermediate forms; finished products; and waste.
However, the participants emphasized that HS Chapter 39 “Plastics and articles made therefrom” is insufficient to keep track of the plastics trade. They said the long list of plastic products does not cover all plastics traded internationally, including plastic products that are easily identifiable in other HS chapters or plastics that are embedded in other products such as cars and electronics. The spokesman noted that the “hidden plastics trade” includes millions of products on the market that have plastics embedded in them.
Despite these loopholes, efforts are being made to track all covert plastics trafficking, which can help tackle the plastic pollution challenge, the speakers stressed. The database, with its “robust” framework, was “good news for transparency” and useful for policy makers, stakeholders and researchers in tackling the plastic pollution problem. Going forward, participants noted the need to consider changes to the HS classification that could assist governments and stakeholders in their efforts.
Participants considered the results of the sample database, which, in addition to production, showed a sharp increase in plastics trade, estimated at more than $ 1 trillion, or 5% of the total value of world trade, in 2018. However, plastics trade has been reported to have declined 7% over the past year and it is still uncertain whether this was due to the general slowdown in trade due to COVID-19 or other factors.
A panel discussion underlined the diversity and complexity of the plastics trade. Plastic has been part of the development path for much of the world, they said, by providing products, creating jobs and lifting communities out of poverty. While much of the focus in the plastics discourse is on waste, the panel emphasized that plastic waste is only a small but significant part of the plastic lifecycle. Panellists looked at the example of the primary plastic mold, which was valued at $ 322 billion in 2019. They found that more than 50% of the total primary plastic form manufactured is traded in the life cycle of plastics. In addition, many countries are both importers and exporters of primary plastics, with total exports varying between 7%, 5% and 3% depending on the region.
The speakers emphasized that sustainable alternatives are possible for many sub-categories of plastics and can be part of new strategies for sustainable development. For example, with regard to plastic packaging, which was valued at $ 50 billion in 2020, many countries are considering alternatives and the data in the database could be useful in that effort.
The event ended with a brief tutorial on how policy makers and researchers can access and use the database, as well as two user experiences from China’s Permanent Mission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).
The Permanent Mission of China showed how the database could be used to promote policies and regulations to reduce plastic pollution and review trade-related challenges in achieving sustainability goals. Speakers said the database could help identify gaps and boundaries and explore the scope for more effective approaches, including through the Informal Plastic Pollution Dialogue and Green Plastics Trade (IDP), which they provide as “a tangible sign for the ongoing WTO reform ”. “You said IDP could act as a bridge between trade and environmental goals.
According to CIEL, his work on plastic pollution focuses on the life cycle of plastic and is not limited to the plastic pollution perspective of the oceans. They found that by looking at trade across the entire life cycle of plastics, the database provides more accurate information on the extent of the plastic waste problem and helps map global trade flows across the entire life cycle of plastics.
In conclusion, the panel emphasized the importance of not only having information on value but also on volume. “Although plastic waste looks relatively small in value, it has a huge impact on the environment,” they warned. [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]