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Global Plastics Treaty: Opportunity to Protect Rights

In First Talks, Countries Should Address Human Rights Impacts

Governments attending negotiations for a Global Plastics Treaty should ensure that the new treaty protects human rights throughout the plastic life cycle, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing a question-and-answer document about the human rights impacts of plastic production, use, and disposal. Governments are to meet in Punta del Este, Uruguay, beginning in November 2022, for a first round of talks on the treaty.

While often framed as a strictly environmental pollution issue, plastic production, use, and disposal have significant impacts on human rights.

“The global plastics treaty is an important opportunity to address the environmental and human costs of plastics,” said Katharina Rall, senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should seize this chance to protect the rights of communities around the globe that are harmed by plastic pollution.”

In its question-and-answer document, Human Rights Watch outlines how plastic production, use, and disposal generates harmful effects for human health and the environment. International human rights law obligates governments to address the harms and to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights to health, water, access to information, and a healthy environment.

Each year, more than 300 million metric tons of plastic is created. Many plastic products are single use, cannot be recycled, and remain in the environment for decades or centuries. Only 9 percent of plastic ever produced has been recycled, while most plastic waste accumulates in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment.

Because they are made of fossil fuels, plastics are driving the climate crisis, which in turn threatens protection of human rights. They also contain toxic chemical additives, which can pose significant threats to human health especially for children, women, and older people. Plastic can take centuries to break down, potentially causing harm for future generations. Plastic production, which has increased significantly over recent decades, is projected to triple from 2015 to 2060.

Human Rights Watch has documented that plastic recycling poses threats to the right to health of workers and local residents in Turkey. In addition, other research shows that shipment of plastic waste from countries in the Global North to countries with weak or nonexistent environmental regulations, low labor costs, and little government oversight on environmental and labor rights violations can contribute to serious human rights harm.

In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) agreed to establish a committee to draft a treaty address the global plastics crisis. The aim is to reach agreement by the end of 2024 with four additional rounds of negotiations and to open the agreement for adoption in 2025. 

Governments in the UNEA should negotiate a legally binding treaty that addresses human rights harm, ends the production of unnecessary virgin plastic, removes toxins from plastic products, and includes specific provisions to protect human rights, Human Rights Watch said. Governments should also ensure meaningful public participation in treaty negotiations, including for communities most affected by the global plastics crisis.

“Without curbing plastic production, the plastics crisis will only get worse, further threatening the rights of people around the world and damaging the climate,” Rall said. “Governments negotiating the new treaty should push for an agreement that requires concrete steps to end the production of unnecessary plastic.”

Source: Human Rights Watch