“Humans are eating, drinking, and breathing plastics.” So begins UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Marcos Orellana, in his report on the stages of the plastics cycle and their impacts on human rights. Released on September 5, 2021, the report outlines the effects plastics have on human health and quality of life over their whole supply chain from petrochemical extraction to disposal. And in particular, focuses on the effects of plastics and toxic plastic additives on vulnerable communities and future generations.
The Special Rapporteur establishes that everyone has a right to information on the hazards of plastics but that “the vast majority” cannot access it. “Consumers, for example, do not have adequate information regarding the chemical additives in the plastic products they buy” (FPF reported). The report includes concerns about exposure to microplastics and toxic plastic additives in the products consumers use daily. It specifically cites food packaging as one such case and notes that “thousands of chemicals used in food contact articles or packaging are in direct contact with food and beverages and may be transferred to those edibles.”
Using real-world examples, the report details the effects on vulnerable communities such as workers, children, indigenous peoples, and those living in poverty, when their “right to information on the risks and harms of exposure to plastics has been denied, and opportunities for their participation in the decision-making process on plastics policies have been minimal or non-existent.
In the latter half of the report, Orellana reviews the current international agreements related to toxic chemicals, discusses the lack of any legally binding international agreement on plastics (FPF reported), and provides recommendations for States, businesses, and international organizations to address “the negative impacts of the plastics cycle on human rights and integrating a human rights-based approach to plastics policy.”
The Special Rapporteur’s suggestions include establishing controls and bans on non-essential plastics (FPF reported), applying extended producer responsibility schemes (FPF reported), and regulating chemicals “in accordance with the precautionary principle.” The report cautions that all potential solutions should be evidence-based, and that “misleading notions, such as heralding recycling as an all-encompassing solution to the plastics problem, should be avoided” (FPF reported). Orellana concludes with strong remarks, arguing that “it is past time that governments and businesses assume their responsibilities to address the global plastics problem… Plastics and the persistent chemicals they contain will not degrade in the environment, and their production is associated with global environmental and health problems. The ability of future generations to enjoy a toxic-free environment conducive to a life with dignity is now compromised.”
Marcos Orellana (July 22, 2021). “The stages of the plastics cycle and their impacts on human rights.” UN Human Rights Council
Marcos Orellana (July 26, 2021). “Right to science in the context of toxic substances.” UN Human Rights Council
UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2021). “Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.”
IISD (September 16, 2021). “Special Rapporteur Highlights Right to Science, Impact of Plastics on Human Rights.” SDG Knowledge Hub