August 18, 2020

WEF Brief Explores Opportunities for Circular Plastics Economy

News Source: SDG Knowledge Hub

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has released a briefing note that analyzes opportunities to scale a more circular economy for plastics. The note draws on the expertise of environment and trade experts to identify investment and trade solutions to tackle cross-border challenges and move towards a sustainable circular plastics economy.

The note titled, ‘Plastics, the Circular Economy and Global Trade,’ states that the world produces over 400 million tonnes of plastics annually, much of which is “mismanaged after use… causing damage to environment and societies.” Only 14-18% of plastic waste is formally recycled, and a large percentage of plastic waste intended for recycling is exported. Within this context, the note explores ways to enable legitimate, responsible trade to establish recycling economies of scale.

The note identifies four types of cross-border challenges in scaling a global, circular plastics economy, related to: regulations, such as bans or requirements on plastic waste imports; standards and data; investment; and processes. Differences among countries in each of these areas contributes to challenges in moving towards a more circular economy. Differences in standards on labeling and use, for instance, require recyclers to create different recycled plastic grades, which adds to the overall cost. On processes, the note states that the Basel Convention will regulate most plastic waste trade across borders through a prior informed consent (PIC) procedure, beginning in 2021.

The note also observes that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demand for single-use plastics for personal protective equipment. In addition, online grocery orders and restaurant takeways have contributed to an increase in disposable packaging, and limited recycling capacities during the pandemic have negatively impacted recycling operations. Some governments have “rolled back bans on single-use plastics” to keep infection rates low, and others have suspended or delayed bans on the use of plastic bags. Despite these challenges, the note emphasizes the need for long-term actions to tackle the plastic pollution problem.

The paper proposes three groups of trade policy actions to scale the shift towards a more circular global plastics economy: border measures; internal mechanisms; and increased transparency. Border measures include the Basel Convention, harmonized system classifications, tariff cuts, export bans, trade facilitation, and efforts to tackle illicit trade. Internal measures include recycling services, investment facilitation, technical assistance, and international standards. Policies to promote transparency include domestic regulation notifications, best practice sharing, and data monitoring systems. The paper further recommends refining the international classification system for traded goods to distinguish between different types of plastic, arguing that such distinction would help countries use trade incentives accurately and facilitate more precise data collection. The note concludes that scaling the circular economy for plastics requires “systemic change beyond the areas of waste management and recycling,” and calls for taking a holistic approach to managing plastics through reducing, reusing, and recycling plastics.

The WEF’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Trade and Global Economic Independence, the WEF-led Global Plastic Action Partnership, and WEF experts and partners contributed to the briefing note.