The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a surge in pollution from disposable products like plastic face masks, gloves, food packaging and hand sanitiser bottles, but effective trade rules can help limit the further spread of waste, says United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) director of international trade Pamela Coke-Hamilton.
Lockdowns around the globe have led to a dramatic 5% drop in greenhouse-gas emissions, says Unctad, but stresses that streets, beaches and oceans have been hit by a tidal wave of Covid-19-related waste.
Global sales of disposable face masks alone are set to skyrocket from an estimated $800-million in 2019 to $166-billion in 2020, according to business consulting firm Grand View Research.
Additionally, physical distancing has also led to a flood of products delivered daily to homes – wrapped in a variety of packaging – as people turn to online shopping and takeout services.
"The ensuing plastic waste is enormous. Historical data tell us that about 75% of coronavirus plastic will likely become waste clogging our landfills and floating in our seas. The negative spillover effects of plastic waste on fisheries, tourism and maritime transport, for example, add up to an estimated $40-billion a year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme," emphasises Coke-Hamilton.
Plastic is an ingredient in countless products traded internationally every day – from cars to toys to household appliances. Even goods that contain no plastic, such as apples or chocolate bars, are shipped in millions of tons of plastic packaging each year.
“Plastic production and consumption are a global system that has lots of trade dimensions. Global trade policies could play an important role in the fight against plastic pollution,” says Coke-Hamilton.
The number of trade measures mentioning plastics – such as technical regulations, subsidies, licences and bans – reported to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has increased by 28% a year over the past decade, showing growing concern among WTO members.
“However, the way countries have been using trade policy to fight plastic pollution has mostly been uncoordinated, which limits the effectiveness of their efforts. There are limits to what any country can achieve on its own.”
Coke-Hamilton says the 164 developing and developed economies that make up the WTO have the ability to write multilateral trade rules that could more effectively address the fundamental issues of the global plastics economy.
Alongside regulating the production and consumption of plastics, the agency urges governments and businesses to identify non-fossil fuel plastic substitutes.
The list of non-toxic, biodegradable or easily recyclable materials that could replace plastic includes many well-known materials, such as glass, ceramics, natural fibres, paper, cardboard, rice husk, natural rubber and animal proteins.
"As developing countries are key suppliers of many plastic substitutes, increased global demand could create new, greener trade and investment opportunities for them," Coke-Hamilton notes.
"Developing nations supply, for example, 92% of the world’s jute, with the main suppliers being Bangladesh (74%) and India (9%). Developing nations also accounted for 94% of global natural rubber exports in 2019, with Thailand (31.5%), Indonesia (30%) and Côte d’Ivoire (8.5%) leading the pack."
Further, developing countries have a big stake in the global plastics economy. Their share of global plastics production jumped from 43.5% in 2009 to 58% in 2018. And two out of three plastic manufacturing jobs are in the global south.
“Since many plastics substitutes are also labour intensive, changes in production and consumption patterns could create new jobs,” Coke-Hamilton points out.