‘Toxic’ wave of plastic pollution risk for human rights, say UN experts

The world must rid itself of the “toxic tidal wave” of plastic pollution that threatens human rights, say two United Nations independent experts.

Jun 05, 2023

A laborer sorts plastic waste to be sold to factories that produce plastic granules in Pakistan. (ANSA)

By Zeus Legaspi
Two experts working with the United Nations (UN) urged member states and other stakeholders to prioritize human rights in the international treaty on plastic pollution currently under negotiation.

The call comes as some 175 countries continue negotiations towards the first international legally-binding treaty on plastic pollution and ahead of World Environment Day on 5 June.

“Plastic production has increased exponentially over recent decades and today the world is generating 400 million tons of plastic waste yearly,” said David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the Environment, and Marcos Orellana, Special Rapporteur on Toxics and human rights.

“We are in the middle of an overwhelming toxic tidal wave as plastic pollutes our environment and negatively impacts human rights in a myriad of ways over its life cycle,” the experts added.

‘Serious risks’ of plastic cycle
Plastics are dangerous and have adverse impacts on human rights in all its stages, the experts detailed in their joint statement on Thursday, 1 June.

Plastic production releases hazardous substances and “almost exclusively relies on fossil fuels,” while plastic itself contains toxic chemicals which pose “serious risks and harms” to human health, human rights, and the environment, the special rapporteurs said.

Meanwhile, at the end of its life as consumer goods, plastics pollute the planet, with 85% of single-use plastics sent to landfills or dumped in the environment.

The experts pointed out that “false and misleading solutions,” such as incineration or recycling, only worsen the threat.

The United Nations Environment Programme said in a report that only 9% of all plastics produced are recycled. While Greenpeace, in a report, echoed this, saying that the only true way of ending the plastic problem is by slowing down and eventually capping plastic production as recycling may still be harmful to humans and the environment.

Affecting the marginalized
The experts expressed concern for marginalized communities which are more exposed to plastic-related pollution and waste.

“We are particularly concerned about groups suffering from environmental injustices due to heightened exposure to plastic pollution, many of them living in “sacrifice zones,” they said in the statement.  

“Sacrifice zones” are areas close to facilities near polluting industries and are referred to as “pollution hotspots” which see upticks in cases of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory illness, Boyd explained in a report released last year.

“It is shocking to witness how the omnipresence of plastics impacts human rights in many different ways, including the rights to a healthy environment, life, health, food, water, and an adequate standard of living,” they said.

‘Human rights approach’ to beat pollution
“We welcome the progress of member states towards a comprehensive and internationally binding instrument on plastic pollution and urge its completion by the end of 2024,” the special rapporteurs said.

The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for Plastics is set to finish the second out of five meetings in Paris today as they resume the development of a treaty to combat plastic pollution.

“There is an urgent need to prioritize reduction in production and use of plastic, detoxification, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the experts added.

“It is essential that states and other stakeholders employ a human rights-based approach to beat plastic pollution,” they said.--Vatican News

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