Publication - Briefing Note

25 May 2023

Trends in Trade Flows Across the Life Cycle of Plastics: Preliminary Review

As governments and stakeholders work to increase international cooperation to end plastic pollution, there is growing recognition of the relevance of trade flows and policies to efforts to end plastic pollution and promote systems change in the global plastics economy.

In the ongoing United Nations negotiations for a new global plastics treaty, the World Trade Organization Dialogue on Plastics Pollution, and the efforts to strengthen regulation of plastic waste trade through the Basel Convention, for instance, governments have noted the importance of improving the transparency of trade flows across the life cycle of plastics and of the material composition of products traded internationally.

To inform these discussions, this briefing note provides a preliminary review of trends in trade flows across the full life cycle of plastics, starting from trade in feedstocks, precursors, and chemical additives commonly used in plastics through to plastic products and plastic waste.

It finds that in 2021, the value of global plastics trade was at least $1.2 trillion, representing around 5% of all trade (see Figure 2 below derived from the briefing note). The paper also highlights that the way trade flows are currently classified for the purposes of official statistics limit the transparency of trade across the plastics life cycle, with important implications for policymaking in relation to global efforts to end plastic pollution. The authors conclude by highlighting steps governments could take to improve the transparency of trade flows across the life cycle of plastics.

This paper draws on collaboration with UNCTAD and the UNCTAD Plastics Trade Database.

Recommended citation: Deere Birkbeck, C., Barrowclough, D., Sugathan, M., Bellmann, C., & Souza Campos Rodrigues, L. (2023). Trends in trade flows across the life cycle of plastics: Preliminary Review. Forum on Trade, Environment, & the SDGs (TESS).

Global Plastics Treaty Negotiations

This briefing note is part of our initiative promoting international cooperation on trade to support the global plastics treaty negotiations.