Governing Plastic: The Global Political Economy and Regulation of Plastic Production and Pollution

What are the economic and political forces driving the expanding global plastic economy?

Project Summary

Numerous calls for international action have been stirred by the scale and impacts of plastic pollution on the world’s oceans and marine ecosystems. Growing scientific evidence of both the environmental and health challenges presented by microplastics has widened the scope of policy discussion to ‘plastic pollution’. Hence, there is an increasing consideration of the social, health and fiscal impacts of plastic pollution on land, including in developing countries struggling to manage a rising tide of plastic waste. And yet, there is little attention among scholars or policy analysts to the strong economic and political forces that drive the expanding global plastics economy.

This multi-disciplinary, collaborative project aims to answer the following questions:

  • What is the global political economy of growing plastic pollution?
  • What is the lifecycle of plastic production and pollution?
  • What could be the impact of economic instruments, international policy tools and legal frameworks in the reduction of both plastic production and pollution and the transformation of the global plastics economy?

Several methods will be employed in order to address this topic: the collection and analysis of quantitative data through interviews with major industry practitioners, regulators, academics as well as government officials in developed and developing countries; policy and legal analysis; literature reviews; analysis of quantitative data on international trade and investment flows; and, for some topics, mini industry or country case-studies within research papers.

Our project will convene a multidisciplinary group of leading experts from academia, international organisations and stakeholder groups to focus on the ‘supply side’ of plastic production and pollution at the global level.

Report

This paper presents the first attempt to quantify and map global trade flows across the entire life cycle of plastics – from raw inputs to final plastic products as well as waste. It draws on a new prototype database created by UNCTAD and the Graduate Institute, which draws on a granular examination of official trade classifications and compiles data on a far broader set of plastics-related inputs and products than those commonly used. This paper finds that trade is immense, with exports of primary, intermediate and final forms of plastics summing up to more than US$1 trillion in 2018 or 5% of the total value of global trade – almost 40% higher than previous estimates. This paper also finds that plastics trade is multifaceted and complex. While some key countries dominate trade across the plastics value chain, a wide diversity of countries are active as both importers of plastic products and exporters, using plastic as a means to participate in global value chains and to add value to exports.

At the same time, while this original database captures a range of neglected trade flows across the plastics life cycle, it is a prototype and still provides an incomplete picture, in part due to the methodological challenges of quantifying the value and volume of plastics ‘hidden’ in millions of products traded internationally (e.g., plastics embedded in products or used in pre-packaged products). The paper makes an original contribution to understanding of the dynamics of the global plastics economy, through the lens of trade. The findings can help governments and stakeholders to reduce plastics pollution and CO2 emissions through more effective use of trade policy in addition to other policy levers.

Working Paper

Transforming the Global Plastics Economy: The Political Economy and Governance of Plastics Production and Pollution

Despite growing alarm about plastic pollution, the production and use of plastics is forecast to continue to expand over coming decades. Efforts on the part of governments, civil society and business to reduce plastics pollution are encouraging signs of awareness and an appetite for engagement but are, nonetheless, failing to stem the tide of growing plastic production, use and waste.

To date, there has been remarkably little scholarly interest in the global plastics economy. Both the global political economy and root causes of the plastics crisis are vastly under- studied. Most efforts towards change (whether voluntary or regulatory) have been focused on the ‘end of life’ of the plastics value chain, rather than its starting point. Attention to the upstream dimensions of the plastics economy – that is, to the production end of the plastics life cycle – is not yet central to international policy discussions nor are the international policy frameworks needed to address them.

This paper seeks to spur discussion on an integrated set of policies – and an enabling international framework – to support an effective transformation of the plastics economy, including a just and sustainable transition, away from excessive plastic production and unnecessary use. It brings together, for the first time in the literature, a first step toward an integrated analysis of what we call the missing ‘political economy piece’ of evolving global discussions of challenges and responses to plastic pollution. It highlights some critical policy steps that can be taken to help face these structural challenges and transform our economy away from the grip of plastics, along with a policy-oriented research agenda.

Working Paper

Material Substitutes to Address Marine Plastic Pollution and Support a Circular Economy: Issues and Options for Trade Policymakers

The growing challenge of plastic waste worldwide, including its impact on vulnerable marine and terrestrial eco- systems, has spurred the quest for viable alternatives to replace plastic as part of a range of solutions to deal with the crisis. This is challenging given some of the inherent flexibility, versatility and low production costs of plastics. Techno-economic factors and evaluation of health and environmental including overall life-cycle impacts will determine whether substitution of plastic would be preferable to other solutions (such as better waste collection and disposal). Particularly problematic plastic pollution sources such as single-use plastic bags and other items are areas where substitution would be highly desirable.

Substitutes for plastic can be broadly categorized into two. Traditional materials are based on naturally occurring polymers of plant and animal origin as well as non-renewable mineral substances found in nature. On the other hand, bio-based polymers are derived from natural polymers, but undergo extensive physical, chemical and abiotic transformations. Many bio-based polymers are only compostable under specific industrial composting conditions and, for this reason, are not a solution in places where such facilities are few or non-existent, particularly in developing countries. Developing countries could, therefore, explore various traditional materials where they may already enjoy inherent production and export-related advantages as substitutes for plastic. Many natural fibres and value-added products, particularly jute, abaca, coir, kenaf and sisal (JACKS fibres), for example, are produced and exported by several developing countries thereby benefiting smallholder farmers. Others include widespread traditional materials that are biodegradable such as bamboo and cotton as well as mineral-based ones such as glass and aluminum that can be easily recycled.

Trade policy initiatives such as lowering tariffs and non-tariff barriers for plastic substitutes such as JACKS fibres could provide incentives for scaling-up their production and deployment. Import tariffs on value-added products are often high in many large developing countries, and hence lowering them could encourage greater South–South trade in plastic substitutes. Such market access initiatives could be pursued unilaterally, bilaterally, regionally, plurilaterally as well as multilaterally under the World Trade Organization (WTO) through liberalization initiatives including as part of a broader environmental goods liberalization package such as an Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA). At the same time, given that many developing countries are also major exporters of conventional plastic materials, consideration should be given to economic and livelihood impacts in these sectors. Addressing fossil-fuel subsidies that keep prices of plastic low would also help in the uptake of substitutes.

Other trade-related supportive initiatives for the scale-up and diffusion of environmental-friendly plastic substitutes include: (i) reviewing and amending the Harmonised System (HS) to enable their greater visibility; (ii) pursuing trade and investment initiatives related to end-of-life management and disposal of both conventional plastics as well as substitutes; (iii) attracting foreign investment in the plastic substitutes sector particularly in developing countries; and (iv) pursuing technical and technology co-operation, assistance and capacity building measures to build supply-side capacities and introducing appropriate regulatory frameworks. All these measures are essential building blocks in the creation of a circular economy.

Working Paper

Tackling Plastic Waste Pollution through Trade : The Interplay between WTO Law and the Basel Convention after Plastic Waste Amendments

This article aims at exploring the implications of the Basel Convention’s Plastic Amendements under WTO law. In particular, it attempts at illustrating whether and, if so, to which extent the WTO regime could/should accommodate for policy space for Members to introduce and/or maintain (at least certain typologies of) import restrictions with a view to foster, rather than frustrate, sustainable trade in plastic waste in line with the Amendments. This complex issue cannot be separated from the broader question of how the WTO regime should interact with MEAs to enhance environmentally friendly outcomes endorsed multilaterally – notoriously a vexata quaestio, which has not yet received a formalized, systematic answer despite its crucial importance to make the WTO a modern institution that can effectively contribute, in a proactive rather than reactive fashion, to the most pressing challenges of the 21th century.

Working Paper

Subsidies and Plastic Production – An Exploration

This paper seeks to provide a first step towards answering the question of “To what extent does the production of virgin plastic benefit from subsidies ?” To understand that question, it is necessary the understand the different stages of the chain from basic raw materials to final plastic product manufacturing, as well as its industrial structure – where plastic is produced, and what companies produce it, which successive stages are vertically integrated, and which are not.

Working Paper

How can international trade policy help tackle plastic pollution?

Trade and trade policies need to be better aligned with global efforts to reduce plastic pollution. This report brings together empirical evidence of the intersections between trade, plastics and plastic pollution with analysis of how trade policies could support international efforts to tackle plastic pollution. It provides a strategic assessment of how trade policies could support international efforts to reduce plastic pollution, suggests policy options and recommends pathways for aligning trade and trade policy with plastic pollution goals with the greatest prospect for meaningful outcomes across United Nations processes, multilateral environmental agreements, trade diplomacy, and others international processes and economic organisations, as well as at the regional and domestic level.

This report recommends governments and stakeholders take cooperative action to:

– Reduce trade in avoidable, unnecessary, problematic and environmentally harmful plastics.

– End trade in hazardous, mixed and contaminated plastic waste while monitoring and facilitating responsible trade in high-value, recyclable plastic waste destined for certified environmentally sound recycling facilities.

– Promote trade in environmentally sustainable non-plastic substitutes; goods and services that promote reuse and refill systems; certified ‘plastic free’ and recycled plastic products; and goods and services for environmentally sound and locally appropriate waste management and recycling.

Working Paper

Restrictions to Transboundary Movements of Plastics and WTO Law: A Policy Brief

This policy brief aims to inform discussions on restrictions on transboundary movements of certain plastic products and plastic waste. It outlines the limits set by WTO law to impose import and export restrictions on plastic products and plastic waste. It focuses on WTO rules that discipline the use of quantitative restrictions and technical specifications, due the recent proliferation of such instruments, and reflects on the policy space left to WTO members to impose such trade-restrictive measures on plastics.

It begins by introducing the current policy context 􏱌 notably the growing use of trade restrictions related to the transboundary movement of plastic waste, and the interest among some WTO Members in seeking ways to limit the trade of plastic products and inputs that are prohibited or restricted on the domestic market. There is, for example, interest in proposals to reduce the flow in international trade of unnecessary and problematic single use plastics, such as by establishing voluntary targets to reduce the proportion of plastic packaging used and embedded in international trade.

Governments seek to promote policy coherence between domestic policies related to the consumption and production of plastic and their external trade policies. To inform these discussions, this note aims to provide guidance on the directly relevant rules of international trade law and the way they affect the options that countries could consider.

Working Paper

Standards and the International Standardization Landscape: Relevance to Plastics and Plastic Pollution

A broad range of standards related to plastics have been developed by different standards organizations. Currently, however, these standards do not form a comprehensive and complete set of instruments that can be applied consistently across international markets to combat plastic pollution – from the design phase to end-of-life – or as indicators for measuring progress on addressing plastic pollution.

Standards are for the most part voluntary instruments that have been developed by industry players and are intended for their use. There is a need for more involvement by governments to define priorities for standard-setting (such as supporting efforts to phase out certain types of plastics, and to promote greater reusability of plastic products, recycling, use of recycled plastics, and non-plastic substitutes) and to provide clear roadmaps for future work. Without such roadmaps, and a complementary regulatory and policy framework, standards on their own cannot provide a solution to the challenge of the plastics pollution.

Standards could play an important role in supporting a proposed global treaty on plastic pollution, including by establishing targets and tools for monitoring their implementation. For this purpose, standards organizations will need to apply a holistic and comprehensive approach that addresses the whole plastics value chain and all sources of environmental leakage. Further, they should increase their cooperation and look at ways to reduce the current fragmentation between different standards.

Research Team

Annabelle Littoz-Monnet
Coordinator
The Graduate Institute

Timothy Swanson
Co-Coordinator
The Graduate Institute

Carolyn Deere Birkbeck
Principal Member
The Graduate Institute

Konstantin Kleine
Principal Member
Graduate Institute

Julien Boucher
Principal Member
University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Western Switzerland

Julien Christen
Principal Member
UNCTAD

Brigitta Imeli
Principal Member
University of Bern

Philipp Krueger
Associated Member
University of Geneva

Laurence Boisson de Chazournes
Associated Member
University of Geneva

Ilaria Espa,
Associated Member
University of Bern

Research Assistant
Principal Member
University of Geneva

Diana Barrowclough
Associated Member
UNCTAD

Steve MacFeely
Associated Member
UNCTAD

David Azoulay
Associated Member
Centre for International Environment Law

Guilia Carlini
Associated Member
Centre for International Environment Law

Susan Wingfield
Associated Member
UN Basel Rotterdam and Stockholm Secretariat

Ben Simmons
Associated Member
Green Growth Knowledge Platform

Sabaa Khan
Associated Member
University of Eastern Finland

Donna Green
Associated Member
University of New South Wales, Australia

Jennifer Clapp
Associated Member
University of Waterloo, Canada

Thomas Hale
Associated Member
University of Oxford

Joao Sousa
Associated Member
International Union for Conservation of the Nature

Judith Schäli
Associated Member
University of Berne

Patrick Schroeder
Associated Member
University of Sussex, UK

Status

completed

Disciplines

SDGs

Policy domains

Regions

Countries

All countries

Host Institution

Coordinator

Year