Last reviewed 10 March 2021

Drawing on a powerful new database that tracks and traces the plastic life cycle, UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) has explained where countries can apply trade policy pressure to reduce pollution.

Fresh insights into the massive extent of plastics in world trade have emerged from a new UNCTAD research paper, “Global trade in plastics: insights from the first life-cycle trade database” (available at https://unctad.org/webflyer/global-trade-plastics-insights-first-life-cycle-trade-database).

“Global trade in plastics tops a whopping $1 trillion each year,” it highlights, “or 5% of total merchandise trade. This is 40% higher than previous estimates and involves virtually all nations.”

The study is the first attempt to map and quantify global trade flows across the entire life cycle of plastics — from raw inputs to final products and waste. It uses a prototype novel life cycle database being developed by UNCTAD and the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

For some plastics, such as synthetic textiles and rubber tyres, as much as 60% of the total volume of global production is traded internationally.

According to UNCTAD senior economist, and co-author of the study, Diana Barrowclough, this massive industry value is a boon for those involved in it but runs counter to global efforts to curtail plastic waste.

According to the study, the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and South Korea are the largest exporters of primary forms of plastics.

China is the leading exporter of derivative intermediate and final manufactured products, including synthetic textiles and empty plastic packaging. It is also the key importer of primary plastics.

The EU, Germany in particular, and the United States, feature heavily as both importers and exporters across the life cycle of plastics.

“Other countries are prominent global players only in certain parts of the plastics life cycle and in specific sectors,” according to Julien Christen, research associate at the Graduate Institute and co-author of the study.