8 March 2022

UN agrees to introduce a legally binding agreement on plastic in 2024


A new committee will work toward global regulation of plastic industry. By the end of 2024, countries will have to commit to implementing new manufacturing and design solutions based on circular economy principles

by Matteo Cavallito


The United Nations are accelerating the fight against plastic pollution in the world. With a resolution approved in the session of Wednesday, March 2, the representatives of the UN Environment Assembly gathered for the occasion in Nairobi, Kenya, set for the first time a target date for the long-awaited legally binding agreement. By the end of 2024, in fact, the organization is espected to complete a final text that will require countries to comply with a regulation capable of governing “the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal.”

The agreement follows the appeal launched by some organizations, such as WWF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which had previously called for the UN to intervene on the issue by introducing mandatory international standards based on a circular approach.

Two years of work ahead

The resolution unifies three preliminary texts presented by three countries and establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), which will begin its work in the coming months, pledging to issue a legally binding global agreement within a couple of years. Final text should regulate the plastics sector, promoting alternative solutions in the design of products and materials that can be reused and recycled.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will convene a stakeholder forum by the end of 2022 to be held with the first session of the INC to share knowledge and best practices in different parts of the world. To achieve the goals, according to UN, countries will require greater international cooperation to facilitate the access to technology.

Plastic production increased more than 17,000 percent in 70 years

Some figures give an idea of the importance of the action. In seven decades (1950-2017), global plastic production grew from 2 to 348 million tons (or 17,300%).According to the UN, the industry, which now turns over $522.6 billion, will double its production capacity as early as 2040. The impact on pollution and climate change, of course, is worrisome

By 2050 – United Nations say – greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of plastics will account for 15% of the total allowed under agreements to limit global warming.

The indiscriminate spread of waste will also intensify contamination problems in both oceans and soils. Today, the world’s oceans are invaded by 11 million tons of plastic waste every year. And the amount could triple by 2040. No less concerning is the condition of soils where the problem is even greater. Agricultural supply chains – the FAO recently said – use 12.5 million tons of plastic products every year. Another 37.3 million tons are used in food packaging.

Stima delle quantità annue di plastica utilizzata nei terreni agricoli mondiali divise per tipologie di prodotto. FONTE: Assessment of Agricultural plastics and their sustainability. FAO, 2021

Estimated annual amounts of plastics used in global agricultural lands divided by product type. Source: Assessment of Agricultural plastics and their sustainability. FAO, 2021

Circular choices will shape our future

For the moment, it is hard to speculate on what regulations may be included in the agreement for 2024. But one thing is for sure: the rules set will promote the adoption of reuse-based solutions. The transition to a circular economy – the UN sayscan reduce by more than 80% the inflow of plastic to the oceans. It also leads to a 55% drop in the production of new material and a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This could help governments to save an estimated $70 billion over the next eight years.

“This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord. It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP. “In parallel to negotiations over an international binding agreement”, ha aggiunto, “UNEP will work with any willing government and business across the value chain to shift away from single-use plastics”. Ma anche “to mobilise private finance and remove barriers to investments in research and in a new circular economy.”