Call for submission, “The lifecycle of plastics and human rights”
Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights


The Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Marcos Orellana, wishes to thank States, civil society organisations, academic institutions, businesses, international organisations and other stakeholders for the continued engagement with this mandate. He launches the process of gathering inputs from States and Stakeholders to inform his thematic report on the lifecycle of plastics and human rights. The report will be presented to the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2021. The Special Rapporteur kindly requests States, civil society organizations, academics, UN agencies, business enterprises, consumers' organizations and all other interested parties to share views and relevant information, which could feed his work, as explained below.

The urgent and global plastics threat to human rights

Plastic pollution is one of the most serious and alarming environmental issues of our time. 380 million tonnes of plastic are produced annually.[1]

Humans are exposed to a large variety of toxic chemicals and microplastics through direct skin contact or exposure, inhalation and ingestion.[2] But the human rights problems resulting from plastics are not caused only by exposure. The plastics lifecycle impacts human rights at various stages, including extraction and transport of oil and gas and other raw materials for plastics; production and release of toxics to the air and water; use and exposure of consumers; and disposal, including incineration and air emissions and dumping of toxic ash.

The plastics crisis is of a global magnitude and affects a broad range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, science, housing, and a healthy environment.

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme more than 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal.[3] Plastics often contain toxic additives that continually expose people and ecosystems to harmful chemicals and pose a risk to health and the environment.[4] Microfibers and other plastic microparticles have been documented in human tissues.[5] Too often, environmental and health impact assessments do not include any information on the thousands of plastics' additives and their behavior at every stage of the plastic lifecycle.

Marine pollution is also a matter of major concern, particularly for coastal communities. Scientific researches show how plastic in the ocean can impact the food chain, having negative health consequences due to pollutants introduced to the fish tissues by plastic ingestion.[6] It is estimated that there may be around 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris weighing some 269,000 tonnes in the ocean.[7]

The production, use, trade and management of plastic is interwoven in supply chains that cross borders, continents, and oceans. To date, efforts to address the human health impacts of plastic have largely ignored the global dimensions of the plastic lifecycle and the plastic crisis. Despite increased attention on the circular economy and the need to address upstream impacts, toxic additives and false solutions of recycling or incineration, plastics production (and its threats to the full enjoyment of all human rights) continues to grow.

There are also many links between plastics and the climate change and biodiversity crises.[8] "Conventional fossil fuel-based plastics produced in 2015 accounted for 3.8%. If plastic production and use grow as currently projected, by 2030, plastic emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants."[9] Furthermore, according to the 2020 Global Biodiversity Outlook, "the rate at which plastic pollution enters aquatic ecosystems is projected to increase by 2.6 times the level of 2016 by 2040, under a 'business as usual' scenario. Even if current commitments to reduce plastic pollution were implemented in full, the reduction in pollution rates would only fall by 6.6% below."[10]

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development addresses the issue of plastic pollution as a top global priority. Sustainable Development Goal 14.1 states the need "by 2025, [to] prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution".

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) has also discussed marine plastic pollution,[11] including the establishment of the ad hoc open-ended expert group on marine litter and microplastics. UNEA is further discussing potential responses to tackle plastic pollution, including the negotiation and adoption of an international legally-binding agreement.[12]

The business and human rights framework also offers an opportunity for businesses to prevent and redress human rights abuses, including the elaboration of environmental assessments as a matter of course in their due diligence processes.[13]

A rights-based approach to the lifecycle of plastics

Effectively reducing toxic exposure to plastic and tackling the threats to human rights of the plastics lifecycle calls for a rights-based approach. Transparency, participation, access to adequate information and effective remedy[14] are critical to effective long-term strategies to reduce the negative impacts of plastics on human rights. Solutions must integrate and observe not only the right of access to information, but also the right to meaningful participation in decision-making, and the right to access to justice and effective remedies.

As highlighted by the Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Marcos Orellana, a human rights-based and precautionary approach applied to the whole lifecycle of plastics is critical to prevent and redress the negative human rights impacts of plastic pollution.[15] At every stage of the plastics lifecycle, solutions should be centered on the respect and full enjoyment of human rights.

To inform his upcoming report on the lifecycle of plastics and human rights, the Special Rapporteur would like to invite all interested stakeholders to submit information, which they consider relevant in preparation of these meetings.

While all submissions are welcome, and the questions below are by no means exhaustive, the Special Rapporteur would be grateful for all information that addresses topics such as:

  • Information on the plastics generally, including production and waste volumes, patterns of trade, and major producers and consumers.
  • Pollution generated in plastics production and its impact, including information on air and marine pollution
  • Health and other impacts of uses of plastics, including in consumer products
  • Toxic additives to plastics and concomitant risks to human rights
  • E-waste and information of exposure to toxic materials
  • Health and environmental impacts of technologies presented as "solutions" to the plastic pollution problem, such as incineration and plastic-to-fuel technologies
  • Information gaps regarding the lifecycle impacts of plastics
  • Implementation of relevant policy and legal framework on plastics products and processes
  • Discussions on a possible legally-binding instrument on plastics, and any provisions on human rights
  • Plastics impacts on the most vulnerable groups in society, including workers, children and indigenous from toxic exposure to plastics
  • Examples of access to environmental and health information, and meaningful opportunities for participation in decision-making, on plastics policy and legislation
  • Examples of accountability and access to effective remedies for human rights abuses related to plastics' pollution and production
  • Examples of extended producer responsibility, both within and beyond boundaries
  • Monitoring and reporting on incidents of mismanagement related to plastics' pollution and production
  • Best practices on addressing plastic pollution and reducing plastics production and identifying, designing, and implementing possible solutions to the plastic pollution crisis
  • Human rights principles for a circular economy
  • Traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples, African descents, and local communities
  • Impacts and implications of plastics on human rights including right to health, the right to a healthy environment, the right to life, health and adequate standard of living and dignity, the right to body integrity, the right to adequate food, the right to land and the right to safe drinking water, the right to housing, the right to meaningful and informed participation, the right to development, the rights of future generations
  • Effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, in plastics, on human health, particularly in women and children
  • Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in plastics

Instructions

  • Please send the information by Wednesday, 21 April 2021 to srtoxicshr@ohchr.org. The information may be sent in English, French or Spanish and must not exceed the 2500 words
  • For relevant reports, please provide a link to the document if available online, or attach if not available online
  • Please indicate "SR Toxics/Plastics" in the email header

Confidentiality

All inputs will be treated confidentially by the Special Rapporteur for the sole purpose of preparing his report to the General Assembly.

If you would like your written submission or any other information NOT to be published on the website of the Special Rapporteur, please explicitly indicate this in your submission.

Useful contacts and links for organizations and representatives who wish to be in contact with the Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights follow.

The Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights thanks you for your submission.


[1] https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution

[2]https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Plastic-and-Health-The-Hidden-Costs-of-a-Plastic-Planet-EXECUTIVE-SUMMARY-February-2019.pdf

[3]https://www.unenvironment.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/

[4]https://ipen.org/site/plastics-toxic-additives

[5]https://static.sched.com/hosted_files/pacificunforumbhr/81/Plastic-and-Health-The-Hidden-Costs-of-a-Plastic-Planet-February-2019.pdf

[6] Alice K. Forrest & Mark Hindell (2018), Ingestion of plastic by fish destined for human consumption in remote South Pacific Islands, Australian Journal of Maritime & Ocean Affairs, 10:2, 81-97, DOI: 10.1080/18366503.2018.1460945; see also https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution

[7] Azoulay, D., Villa, P., Arellano, Y., Gordon, M. F., Moon, D., Miller, K. A., & Thompson, K. (2019). Plastic & Health: the hidden costs of a plastic planet. CIEL and others. https://static.sched.com/hosted_files/pacificunforumbhr/81/Plastic-and-Health-The-Hidden-Costs-of-a- Plastic-Planet-February-2019.pdf

[8] https://static.sched.com/hosted_files/pacificunforumbhr/f5/Plastic-and-Climate-FINAL-2019.pdf

[9] https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Plastic-and-Climate-FINAL-2019.pdf

[10] The Global Biodiversity Outlook report quoted: Lau, W. W. Y., Shiran, Y., Bailey, R. M., Cook, E., etal (2020). "Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution", https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aba9475

[11] See e.g.: (Resolution 1/6: Marine plastic debris and microplastics (2014); Resolution 2/11: Marine plastic litter and microplastics (2016); Resolution 3/7: Marine litter and microplastics (2017); Resolution 4/6: Marine plastic litter and microplastics (2019

[12] The Convention on Plastic Pollution: Toward a New Global Agreement to Address Plastic Pollution (June 2020) provides a conceptual framework towards a new global agreement to address plastic pollution. https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Convention-on-Plastic-Pollution-June-2020-Single-Pages.pdf

[13] On Major switch after the Future we want resolution from 2012, resolutions on the Ocean and the law of the sea start mentioning specially the issue of plastic, see: A/RES/66/288163, Resolution adopted by the GA, 2012, The future we want: "We note with concern that the health of oceans and marine biodiversity are negatively affected by marine pollution, including marine debris, especially plastic … 218. We recognize the importance of adopting a life-cycle approach and of further development and implementation of policies for resource efficiency and environmentally sound waste management. We therefore commit to further reduce, reuse and recycle waste (the 3Rs) and to increase energy recovery from waste …". Since then, all the Oceans and the law of the sea UNGA resolutions mention the problem: 142. Recall that in "The future we want", States noted with concern that the health of oceans and marine biodiversity are negatively affected by marine pollution, including marine debris, especially plastic ..."

[14] Highlight the legal liability and compensation for damages, suggested by UNEP assessment. "No global liability and compensation mechanism for pollution by plastic."

[15] Statement by the Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights to the Ad hoc Open-ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics (AHEG-4) . /Documents/Issues/ToxicWaste/AHEG4_November_2020.docx

On previous work carried out by the SR on toxics and human rights mandate, see also:

(A/HRC//74/480, 2019); On incineration: A/HRC/39/48/Add.2 (SR Toxic Wastes, 2018), Denmark: "84 (f) Greenland self-government should ensure that the promotion of economic expansion is constantly accompanied by efforts to improve the management of chemicals and waste systems, (...) should take concrete steps towards a circular economy, including by abandoning open-air landfills and the incineration of waste. ";

A/74/480 (SR Toxic Wastes, 2019): "[...] toxic emissions from plastic production facilities, the leachates of toxic chemical additives in plastics, the exposure of microplastics in water and other media and the "disposal" of waste through incineration, unsound recycling and other means all result in exposure to a myriad of substances because of plastic. Some of the substances have clearly hazardous properties, particularly for young and unborn children, while for many others, there is inadequate information upon which to determine hazard and risk."

A/HRC/33/41 (SR Toxic Wastes, 2016): 96. At the tail end of industrial activity, children are far too often found working at toxic waste dumps, burning plastics and cables to recover and recycle precious metals. Electronic waste (e-waste) is of particular concern: (...) Children are found with record levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies at such waste sites. (...) In Guiyu, China, about 80 percent of children suffer from respiratory diseases, and there has been a surge in cases of leukaemia and concentrations of lead in blood are high. (...) Children and caregivers have the right to information about hazardous substances they are exposed to. (...) 112.International organizations should:(a) Integrate the problem of toxic chemicals, pollution and waste into the work of their organization, based on their respectivecompetencies, and monitor and reporton the issue;(b)Increase efforts to reduce the exposure of children and women of reproductive age to toxic chemicals, particularly of child workers and those living in high-risk situations.113.The CRC should:(a)Increase its attention to the children's rights impacts of pollution and toxics when reviewing States Obligations under the Convention;(b)Consider undertaking a study on the impacts of toxics and pollution on the rights of the child, recognizing the State's obligation to prevent exposure to such hazardous substances and wastes, and building on its general comment No. 16; SR on toxic report A/73/567); on e-waste, see:A/HRC/39/48, (SR Toxic Waste 2018)



Special Procedures
Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights
Recent Thematic Reports

Duty to prevent exposure to the COVID-19 virus (A/HRC/45/12) (2020)

25th anniversary of the mandate (A/75/290) (2020)

Duty to prevent exposure to toxics (A/74/480) (2019)

Principals to protect workers (A/HRC/42/41) (2019)

Workers' rights toxic exposures (A/HRC/39/48) (2018)

First Report to GA (A/73/567) (2018)

Guidelines for good practices (A/HRC/36/41) (2017)

Rights of the child (A/HRC/33/41) (2016)

Right to information (A/HRC/30/40) (2015)

Issues in Focus
Contact information

Dr. Marcos A. Orellana, Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights

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E-mail: srtoxicshr@ohchr.org

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