China leading WTO dialogue on circular plastic trade

WTO deputy director general Alan Wolff
WTO deputy director general Alan Wolff

China has begun an informal and open dialogue process within the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on creating an environmentally sustainable and circular plastic trade.

Along with Australia, Barbados, Canada, Fiji, Jamaica and Morocco, China has invited other WTO members to joinFi the discussion on how trade can prevent plastic pollution.


China’s Ambassador to the WTO Xiangchen Zhang told an online event to launch the dialogue that possible subjects for discussion could include improving transparency, monitoring trade trends, promoting best practice, strengthening policy coherence, identifying the scope for collective approaches, assessing capacity and technical assistance needs, and cooperating with other international processes and efforts.

While Fiji’s Ambassador to the WTO Nazhat Shameem Khan said that this informal dialogue will encourage exploratory work on how the WTO can contribute to efforts to reduce plastics pollution and transition to a circular, more environmentally sustainable plastics trade.

But WTO deputy director general Alan Wolff added that countries needed to work together to avoid a situation where each of them as different policies.

He said: “The scope and role of trade, trade policies and the WTO to address plastic pollution and to promote environmentally sustainable plastic trade will be discussed in detail within this programme. 

“There is already a good foundation to build on. Plastic pollution has been raised as an issue in every meeting of the CTE (Committee on Trade and Environment) since November 2016. There have also been useful workshops and informal consultations both within and outside the WTO to raise awareness and support for action on this important topic.

“Members have highlighted the cross-border implications of plastic pollution. Several have shared national experiences and information on trade measures adopted to address challenges and/or to promote sustainable plastics trade and the circular economy. Between 2009 and 2018, WTO Members notified 128 measures affecting trade in plastics.

“These ranged from technical regulations for better waste management; import licensing schemes to regulate trade flows of certain plastics; to taxes, charges or bans on single-use plastic or plastic bags. Eighty per cent of the notified measures were from developing or least-developed countries. The diversity of approaches taken, and the range of trade measures adopted, suggest there is scope for coordinated global action to address the trade dimensions of plastic pollution.

“Members continue to explore avenues, within the rules and mechanisms of the WTO, to support national, regional and global efforts. A revived Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) negotiation could contribute to better plastics trade by reducing trade barriers to environmentally sound plastic substitutes, as well as to equipment that helps to enhance waste management.

“In addition, WTO Members could consider as part of their informal dialogue on plastics:

  • Defining principles for effective and coherent trade-related measures that seek to tackle plastic pollution and waste in a WTO compatible manner.
  • Setting targets for reducing trade in single-use, non-sustainable plastics in a WTO compatible manner.
  • And establishing a monitoring mechanism to track the relevant trade-related measures and international trade in the relevant plastics in order to measure progress, examine what is working, and to identify policy innovations and best practices.

“There have also been calls for greater support to capacity building – through Aid for Trade (A4T) and the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) – to support a sustainable plastics circular economy.

“International co-operation is necessary to foster policy coherence, to avoid a patchwork of trade measures and regulations.

“There are already specific commitments and discussions ongoing to reduce plastic pollution through United Nations environmental processes and many Members are taking concrete steps at the national, regional and international levels. WTO Members at the CTE have benefitted from briefings from the secretariats of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) Conventions, UNCTAD, as well as UNEP on intergovernmental discussions in the UN Environment Assembly. Work of the ISO, WCO or others – such as the WEF and business community, academia and civil society – could also feed into this dialogue on sustainable plastic trade.” 

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