Browse our full library of in-depth resources and publications

The PacWastePlus programme team is committed to producing meaningful and valuable publications and resources that provides guidance for improving waste management in the Pacific


Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution - Technical Resource for Pacific Island Courtiers

INC Technical Note: World Trade Organization Rules and Key Elements for Consideration in the Context of a Treaty to End Plastic Pollution

Ahead of the second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment (plastics treaty), there are clear indications that trade restrictions1 and requirements are to be part of the discussions, as indicated by many pre-INC2 State submissions, including non-party trade provisions (see CIEL’s brief on non-party trade provisions).2

Concurrently, some States have raised the question of compatibility between possible provisions of the future plastics treaty and World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.3 Since the inception of the WTO, a number of principles have become part of the core of international trade law under its jurisdiction. Critical elements of these rules include: (i) the non-discrimination principle;4 (ii) the most-favored-nation (MFN) principle5 and (iii) the national treatment principle.6 However, those principles do not preclude or impede States from prohibiting, restricting, or conditioning trade within the plastics treaty. Many multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) have included trade and traderelated provisions,7 including trade restrictions, and none have triggered WTO disputes.8 In fact, MEAs that contain trade provisions harmonize the approach to an environmental problem, avoiding legal fragmentation and plausible WTO challenges.

This brief examines the question of consistency or compatibility of the incoming plastics treaty with WTO rules, with the understanding that the treaty negotiation process is still very much ongoing. It also provides key recommendations for future framing of the plastic treaty’s terms to address the essential interlinkages between plastic pollution and international trade in advance of INC-2.

Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution - Technical Resource for Pacific Island Courtiers

INC Policy Brief: Trade Provisions in Multilateral Environmental Agreements-Key Elements for Consideration in the Context of a Treaty to End Plastic Pollution

Plastics trade is an essential component of discussions to develop an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution, for three reasons:

1. Plastic feedstocks, polymers, additives, plastic pellets, plastic products, and waste are largely traded internationally1 and the liberalization2 of trade in plastics and their feedstocks supports the rise in production and consumption of plastics, accelerating the plastic crisis;

2. Trade in plastics acts as a conveyor belt for the spread of products, packing and packaging responsible for plastic pollution, including micro- and nanoplastics around the world;3 and

3. Trade in plastics products and products packaged in plastic adds to the waste management burden that importing countries face.

Additionally, Global trade in plastic is immense. Plastics imports and exports in “primary, intermediate and final forms of plastics [represent] up to more than US$1 trillion in 2018 or 5% of the total value of global trade.”4 In 2020, there were 369 million tons of plastics traded - $1,2 trillion in value -, a significant increase from the previous years (UNCTAD, 2022d).

UNEP also identified trade as one of the key elements to address (through the full life cycle of plastics) in its Plastics Science document published in preparation of the first Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC1) (UNEP/PP/INC.1/7).5 As measures for achieving the strategic goals for systems change, UNEP proposed among others to include (i) bans of specific final goods as well as problematic and unnecessary polymers and additives; as well as restrictions and phase out of harmful substances, (ii) taxes/tariffs related to upstream, and midstream activities and products; (iii) removal of fossil fuel subsidies; and (iv) customs duties.6

Given this importance, and to ensure that the goal of ending plastic pollution is successfully achieved, it will be essential (i) to recognize the contribution and role of trade in plastic pollution and (ii) ensure that the plastics treaty includes trade-related measures as core obligations.7

Newsletter Subscription

Would you like to subscribe to our quarterly programme newsletter-The Connection?

We care about the protection of your data. Read our Privacy Policy.