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Blog December 2022

Where is global policy for trading and recycling plastics headed in 2023?

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Conor Dowd Product Marketing Manager

Over the last few weeks, there have been three big events that could have an impact on global markets for recycled plastics.

These were:

COP27

While recycling did not make the main statement that came out of the recent COP27 discussions, a side event on global plastic policy gave a summary of where the debate over plastic recycling is headed.

Taking place at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, COP27 brought together governments, non-governmental organizations, and businesses to discuss ways to mitigate and prevent the effects of climate change.

During the event, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime organized a session called How combatting plastic pollution and illegal traffic in plastic waste can reduce carbon emissions

This was the only session dedicated to recycling and waste at COP27, but it did give clear indications on the direction of travel for plastic recycling.

One of the first speakers was the Minister of Agriculture, Climate Change and Environment in the Seychelles Flavien Joubert. He highlighted that a concern for the Seychelles and other similar countries was pollution caused by illegal trade and “bogus recycling schemes that do not provide the environmental benefits they claim.” He added that they encourage illegal dumping and uncontrolled incineration in some countries.

Minister Joubert therefore encouraged “countries to regulate their industries and companies engaged in trade to ensure that whatever product is moved around does not end up being dumped or being burned illegally.”

He suggested that it might be more beneficial to move recycling plants closer to where the waste is being generated or collected, as this would reduce illegal pollution and reduce transport emissions.

Indonesia’s director of hazardous and non-hazardous waste management Ahmad Gunawan Witjaksono explained that his country has a “problem of not enough raw materials” for its factories only getting 50% of what it needs. Therefore, it must import plastics and paper from other countries. 

In 2019, following China’s ban on imports of plastics, he said his country started to receive significant waste and hazardous waste including more than 1,000 containers of mixed waste.

Since then, Indonesia has introduced tougher regulation, including zero tolerance for mixed waste. Imported material also must go to where it will be recycled, and all exporters must be registered in their own countries. “It is effective, and everything is getting better,” he said.

However, Indonesia hoped that between 2030 and 2050 it would be able to reduce imports to zero. 

Basel Convention deputy executive secretary Carlos Martin-Novella noted that prior to 2019 the global market for plastic trade had been unregulated. But in that year, Basel Convention signatory nations acted and from 1 January 2021 there had been international rules such as mixed plastic waste was now controlled. “This made the movement of plastic waste more trackable, transparent and predictable,” he said.

In a change of tone, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development head of the trade and commercial diplomacy branch Miho Shirotori said that the solution to illegal trade and pollution from plastics was to enable the trade in alternatives to it. She suggested packaging materials made from paper and agricultural waste were being investigated by her organization with the aim of finding ways to make global trade of these as cost effective as plastics. “The future is not plastics, but plastic substitutes,” she said.

But United Nations Environment Programme director of the ecosystems division Susan Gardner brought things back on track saying that the solution to the plastics issue was a global circular economy.

World Trade Organization (WTO) director of the trade and environment division Aik Hoe Lim added that “trade is too often the missing piece when we talk about the challenges.”

“Essentially, you cannot deal with the challenge at the end of the supply chain when it is a waste, you have to look at what happens before that,” he added.

On the world’s use of plastics, he said: “We like plastics. We demand plastics.”

Therefore, WTO member nations from both developed and developing countries were looking at trade-based solutions to cut plastic pollution. 

He said they were investigating best practice on trade measures on plastics that could be adopted by governments. 

Negotiations on a global treaty on plastic pollution

Taking place in Uruguay, these discussions involved 160 nations in the first of five meetings that are designed to create a global treaty on plastic pollution.

Co-ordinated by the United Nations, the week-long Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee agreed that there needed to be a treaty.

But the problem was the detail of how that treaty will work.

A group of nations, called the ‘High Ambition Coalition,’ which contains EU countries and others such as Switzerland, is arguing in favor of mandatory global measures to curb the production of plastics.

But others such as the United Nations and Saudi Arabia want individual nations to make their own pledges to meet overall goals, which is like how the Paris Climate Agreement is organized. 

For plastics recyclers, the big worry about this is around global trade. On the one hand, organizations such as the Plastics Industry Association were pushing for more recycling globally, while others such as Greenpeace argue that we need to cut use of plastic.

Potential EU ban on plastic exports to non-OECD and OECD countries in next four years

At the beginning of 2021, new Basel Convention rules began that placed greater restrictions on the export of plastics for recycling. 

Since then, the European Commission has been working on developing even tougher export rules, that could lead to a ban to non-OECD countries. 

This recently took a step closer when the ENVI Committee, made up of Members of the European Parliament, voted in favour of banning non-OECD exports of plastics and then within four years to OECD countries. MEPs voted seventy-six in favour, none against and just five abstentions. They will now send their recommendations to the European Parliament to debate and vote on this.

Although no longer in the EU, UK Members of Parliament on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also recommended a ban on exports of plastics from the UK by 2027. 

Global trade for plastics looks increasingly difficult

What is clear from these events is that global trade of plastics for recycling is going to be under increasing pressure.

The Basel Convention amendments in 2021 (the US is not a signatory but all other countries are) meant that OECD countries largely trade plastics among themselves, meaning less material goes to non-OECD countries as pre-notification is now required.

Since then, there are strong moves from European countries to ban exports of plastics for recycling. 

These countries are also pushing for tighter plastic rules at a global level as has been seen in the discussions in Uruguay. 

However, others such as the United States and the WTO are looking at trade-based solutions.

Even countries such as Indonesia that currently require imports to meet their manufacturing requirements, aim to ban these plastic imports eventually. 

Whatever happens, it is clear there are going to be fundamental changes to trade and recycling of plastics over the coming years. 

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