4 Ways Trade Can Help Ghana Transition to a Circular Plastics Economy

Circular economy concept.

By Clem Ugorji, Lead Advisor, Circularium Africa Advisory, and Colette van der Ven, Founder & Director, TULIP Consulting 

Ghana is a fast-growing economy facing a plastics dilemma. Given the material’s favorable characteristics, plastics are a vital resource. It is used as an industrial input; ensures access to safe drinking water; and plays an important social role by enabling low-income populations to purchase safe drinking water, food, and other basic necessities, sold in low-priced miniature plastic sachets. At the same time, the growth of single-use plastics, estimated to be up to 70% of total plastics consumption, is resulting in a burgeoning plastic waste problem for Ghana. 

To address its plastic waste problem, Ghana needs to take urgent action to boost a more circular economy. With low plastic waste recovery and recycling rates of 12% and 10% respectively, Ghana could deploy policy instruments to stimulate domestic demand for recycled plastics and increase recovery and recycling rates. Industries such as consumer-packaged goods, construction, textiles, and Ghana’s newly emerging automotive sector could benefit from such interventions.  Ghana could also evaluate its capacity to become a regional recycling hub. Stakeholders will need to assess the merits of this approach against the capacity to ensure environmental goals are met. 

A recent study commissioned by the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) and the Platform for Shaping the Future of Trade and Global Economic Interdependence – both initiatives of the World Economic Forum – highlights the realities of the plastics landscape in Ghana and how trade policy could be used to achieve a more circular economy and add to domestic interventions. Here are four ideas to consider:  

1. Better control plastic waste trade by equipping border officials with the ability to distinguish between different types of plastic waste imports

To keep hazardous and hard-to-recycle plastic waste out of its market, it is important for Ghana to develop a strategic approach to restricting such waste, in accordance with international trade expectations – including the newly adopted plastic waste amendments

to the Basel Convention. It will be important to equip border officials with the capacity to implement the Basel Convention Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure and expedite trade for responsible materials recyclers who import or export. Greater border efficiency could reduce the risks of illegal trade too.

2.  Facilitate imports of relevant goods and services for creating a more circular economy for plastics

Ghana can leverage trade agreements to facilitate access to the goods and services it needs to advance its plastic waste management agenda while restricting the import of unwanted goods. With respect to goods, it could do so by enabling differentiation between recyclable and non-recyclable plastic waste in its customs classification systems. Another option would be to remove tariffs on the import of environmental goods that would accelerate Ghana’s waste management progress, such as recycling machinery. For services, Ghana can use its trade agreements to facilitate investment in services that would be critical for Ghana’s plastic waste management progress – both upstream with respect to the redesign of products, and downstream with respect to waste recycling, installation, assembly, and maintenance. 

3.  Reduce non-tariff barriers to improve export markets for circular economy products 

Differences in design and the implementation of standards and regulations across jurisdictions can lead to inefficiencies and increase trade costs. For example, the European Union’s Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) sets out mandatory requirements for recycled content and waste reduction measures for key product groups, including packaging. These developments, while positive for circular economy objectives, add new complexity for Ghanaian exporters to the European Union. 

Ghana could privilege the use of international product standards as a basis to develop technical regulations relevant to recycled plastics. Where relevant international standards do not currently exist, Ghana can play a leading role in the progression of international standards, or in developing regional standards within ECOWAS or the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The World Economic Forum’s Regional Action Group for Africa is already exploring a common regional standard for food-grade rPET with the African Circular Economy Alliance (ACEA) and the ARSO. 

4.  Investigate global partnerships for capacity building and dialogue for sharing best practices 

Ghana could also take part in plurilateral initiatives at the World Trade Organization to help its officials exchange best practices and knowledge. In November 2020, several WTO members launched an “open-ended informal dialogue” on plastics pollution and sustainable plastics trade, with a focus on improving transparency, monitoring, promoting best practices, and capacity building. Ghana does not currently participate in this initiative. 

Other relevant initiatives that are taking place at the WTO include the recently launched Structured Discussions on Trade and Environmental Sustainability. For Ghana, which does not participate in this initiative either, it could be an opportunity to explore the role of the international trade community in capacity building and technical assistance, including in the area of customs control systems. It would also be useful to explore ways of linking the WTO’s technical assistance programmes with those administered by the World Customs Organization and the Basel Convention. 

To develop a successful plastic waste management strategy, Ghana must proactively align its plastic waste management ambitions with its trade agenda, since trade is critical in shaping a country’s economic agenda. This, in turn, requires an orchestrated approach, which could be facilitated by the establishment of an inter-ministerial committee focused on plastic waste and trade. It would also be important to engage in public-private dialogues to continue to identify trade policy priorities. 

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