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Plastic pandemic: Time running out to prevent human rights tragedy – UN expert

20 October 2021

NEW YORK (20 October 2021) – Calling plastics a global threat to human rights, a UN expert today called for drastic action – including banning disposable plastic – to keep our planet habitable, and to safeguard the rights of those who already suffer the most from plastic production and pollution.

“The only way to respond to the global plastics crisis is to transition towards a chemically-safe circular economy that addresses all stages of the plastics cycle,” Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxic substances and human rights, said in presenting a report to the UN General Assembly on the impact of plastics on human rights. 

“We all eat, drink and breathe plastics every day,” he said. The reality is that plastics remain in the environment for centuries and hazardous chemicals routinely added to plastics aggravate the toxification of our planet. Plastics even aggravate the climate emergency by limiting the ability of oceans to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

“Safeguarding the human rights of present and future generations demands that the international community reverse the plastics crisis,” he said. “Governments must negotiate a new international legally-binding instrument addressing the whole cycle of plastics, and businesses must clean up existing plastic pollution, pay reparations for harm, and make sure plastic no longer damages our planet.  Above all, respect for human rights must be at the centre of any solutions.”

In his report to the General Assembly, Orellana marshalled the latest research from a broad range of sources to demonstrate the damage plastics and their toxic additives are doing to human rights and the environment, especially the rights of the most vulnerable.

Underlining the very real possibility that there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 if current trends continue, Orellana said the plastics crisis affects a broad range of human rights guaranteed under international law. These include the rights to life, health, a clean and healthy environment, housing, adequate food, water and sanitation.

In his report, Orellana cautioned against false or misleading solutions. Open burning and incineration of plastics generate toxic dioxins and other persistent organic pollutants that are extremely harmful to human health and the environment.

Noting that only nine percent of plastic is recycled, he also cautioned that “recycling is often a sham to simply dump plastic waste near marginalized communities and make consumers responsible for the behaviour of businesses.”


Mr. Marcos Orellana is the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.

The report of the Special Rapporteur on the stages of the plastics cycle and their impacts on human rights can be consulted here

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what are known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system, is the general name for the Council's independent investigative and monitoring mechanisms that deal with specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

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