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Statements Special Procedures

Opening Remarks, United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Marcos A. Orellana, at the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly

16 May 2022

NEW YORK (20 October 2021)

Thank you, Mr. President.

Distinguished delegates, colleagues,

Our planet is polluted by plastics containing chemicals that are seriously harmful to people and the environment. We all eat, drink and breathe plastics every day, and we are not even fully aware of their impacts on our bodies.  

The reality is that plastics remains in the environment for centuries. The reality is that the hazardous chemicals added to plastics aggravate the toxification of our planet.

The ability of present and future generations to enjoy a toxic-free environment is now compromised. It is time to face the facts - plastics represent a global threat to human rights.

The report I am presenting today demonstrates how plastics, microplastics, and their toxic additives are causing damage to human rights and the environment.

The large-scale manufacturing of plastics started in the 1950s, at a rate of 2 million tons per year. Today, the annual production of plastics is 415 million tons, and it is projected to quadruple by 2050. By then, scientists estimate there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.

When disposed of in landfills, plastics leach toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater. When mismanaged, plastics pollute land, waterways and the oceans.

To make matters worse, half of all the plastic produced is used only once; and then discarded as waste.

But the plastics problem is not just a problem of waste. Plastics may contain over 10,000 toxic additives that leach and enter people’s bodies.

Furthermore, plastics aggravate the climate emergency by limiting the ability of oceans to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

This lamentable state of affairs is incompatible with the right of everyone to a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable environment.

There are impacts on human rights in every stage of the plastics cycle. These impacts often disproportionately affect groups in already vulnerable situations.

  • Extraction of the fossil fuels used as feedstock for plastic production often leads to widespread pollution of the land that especially affects Indigenous peoples;
  • Manufacturing of plastics emits toxic pollutants that impairs the health of workers and fenceline communities;
  • Use of plastic products exposes children to endocrine disrupting chemicals in toys or utensils.
  • Mismanagement of waste causes serious environmental injustices at the national and global levels, particularly for coastal communities and people living in poverty flooded by tides of waste plastic.

Growing volumes of plastic waste also impose a debt on future generations. Microplastics have been found in human placentas. Hazardous chemicals added to plastics can also disrupt human procreation and even damage human DNA. The exposure of pregnant women to such hazardous substances can affect the health of their descendants.

Mr President, Distinguished delegates,

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 and is guided by human rights principles.

Respect for human rights will lead to effective and legitimate solutions. Effective, so that solutions can actually solve the plastics problem. Legitimate, so that solutions do not come at the expense of those most vulnerable in society.

A human rights-based approach calls for a vision of plastics policy that aligns with scientific evidence; centers on principles of non-discrimination, accountability and informed participation; and gives special attention to the needs of people in vulnerable situations.

A rights-based approach to a chemically safe circular economy also avoids false or misleading solutions. For example, at current levels of technology and plastic production, and given the levels of toxic additives in plastics, a mere 9% of plastic wastes are recycled. Recycling is thus currently more of a mirage that creates an optical illusion.

Similarly, open burning and incineration generate toxic dioxins and other persistent organic pollutants that are extremely harmful to human health and the environment.

Despite the magnitude of the problem, and the fragmentation of initiatives, the plastics crisis can be tackled.

As a matter of priority:

Governments should negotiate a new international legally-binding instrument that addresses the whole cycle of plastics and reflects a rights-based approach.

And businesses should clean up existing plastic pollution, pay reparations for harm, and make sure their products no longer damage our planet.

To conclude,

I wish to stress that safeguarding the human rights of present and future generations demands that the international community reverse the plastics crisis.

Thank you, Mr. President.