About 369 million tonnes of plastic were exchanged globally in 2021, which is more than 18 million trucks’ worth. 13 times around the world would be covered by the queue.

The majority of the goods on those trucks will wind up fouling our streets and clogging our waters because less than 10% of all plastics generated have been recycled.

However, the natural world is full with sustainable resources that may be used to create eco-friendly substitutes for the straws, shopping bags, bottles, food wrappers, and other plastic products we use every day. These resources include bamboo, sand, banana trees, and algae.

By 2040, plastic alternatives could reduce worldwide plastic garbage by around 17%, or about 63 million tonnes, or 3.5 million fewer trucks in the queue, according to PEW research.

Henrique Pacini, an economist with UNCTAD who focuses on trade and environmental concerns, said that the change “offers economic opportunities in addition to the benefits to the planet.”

“But countries and companies have to work together and across borders to scale up production and reduce trade barriers,” Mr. Pacini said.

A trillion-dollar opportunity

According to the most recent data, trade in plastic alternatives and their goods was valued about $388 billion globally in 2020, which is roughly one third the value of trade in plastics made from fossil fuels.

This demonstrates that there is currently a sizable market for plastic replacements and that there is tremendous room for expansion, according to Mr. Pacini.

Approximately two thirds of the world’s exports of alternatives to plastic are made up of raw materials, primarily from developing nations.

“Each country can focus on the materials they have an advantage in producing,” Mr. Pacini said, “such as coconut husks and bamboo in many island nations in the Caribbean Sea and Indian and Pacific Oceans.”

However, many businesses in underdeveloped nations lack the tools and resources necessary to produce finished or nearly finished goods on a big scale.

Companies in affluent nations now have the chance to make investments in developing nations to advance their technology and human capital. 

“Scaling up the production of plastic substitutes will depend on strengthening collaboration between developed and developing countries,” Mr. Pacini said.

Seaweed packaging

A start-up in London named NotPla creates biodegradable packaging alternatives utilising seaweed.

NotPla just started testing seaweed takeaway boxes and edible liquid packaging in Chile and Ghana, where it’s collaborating with the UN and the two nations’ environment ministries.

During a workshop on plastic substitutes held in December 2022 by UNCTAD and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the company’s CEO Rodrigo Garcia stated that they are evaluating if their packaging can replace the water sachets now used throughout Africa.

Additionally, UNCTAD is collaborating with NotPla and the Barbados government to increase the company’s services and investments in Caribbean countries in order to decrease the usage of single-use plastics.

An unfair playing field

Along with increasing production internationally, nations must cooperate to remove trade restrictions and other obstacles that keep the competition for plastic substitutes unfair.

The majority of fossil fuel-based plastics receive more government support and enjoy reduced tariffs, which are a form of import tax.

For instance, the global average tariff on plastic straws is 7.7%. It’s 13.3% for paper straws, which makes this plastic-free kind less competitive.

Simply put, consumers are unwilling to quit using plastics and switch to natural alternatives because present tariffs are making them more affordable, according to David Vivas, a UNCTAD legal officer who works on trade and environmental issues.

Harmonized trading codes

UNCTAD has created the first list of plastic alternatives and their corresponding harmonised codes (HS) in an effort to help level the playing field.

HS codes are a component of an internationally standardised system of names and numbers that enables nations to classify goods uniformly prior to export and import.

The effort of the UN Intergovernmental developing Committee, which is developing a legally binding instrument to reduce plastic pollution, is supplemented by UNCTAD’s list of 282 codes.

Additionally, it can aid in putting into practise the recently approved Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which establishes new goals for biodiversity protection. Reforming detrimental fuel subsidies, such as those that boost the affordability of plastic goods, is one of them.

A trade and pollution dashboard

The Trade and Pollution Dashboard from UNCTAD, which offers a life-cycle analysis for various materials, enables businesses and nations to fully comprehend the environmental advantages and disadvantages of various plastic alternatives.

“Together, the harmonised codes and dashboard can help countries identify promising plastic substitutes, cut tariffs, and address non-tariff barriers to these products,” Mr. Vivas claims. 

A faster transition to a plastic-free economy would be possible, he claimed, if incentives for using harmful materials were diminished.


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