Plastic production, use, and disposal have significant impacts on human rights. Plastics contain toxic chemical additives, which can pose significant threats to human health. Because they are made of fossil fuels, plastics are driving the climate crisis, which in turn threatens human rights.
On November 28, 2022, countries around the world began to negotiate a new Global Plastics Treaty. The negotiations were based on a resolution by the United Nations Environment Assembly, mandating the creation of a legally binding instrument by the end of 2024 to end plastic pollution. The world is drowning in plastic, and the creation of this mandate recognizes the urgency of addressing the problem for the benefit of human beings and the environment. As negotiations proceed, the countries involved should ensure that the treaty addresses plastics in a way that protects human rights.
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 the remaining plastic waste is dumped, landfilled, incinerated, or litters the environment. Of all plastic produced, 79 percent has accumulated in landfills, informal dumpsites, or the natural environment, and 12 percent has been incinerated.
This document examines the ways that plastic production, use, and disposal threaten human rights, and why governments should take immediate steps to limit plastics to meet their human rights obligations.
Why are plastics a human rights issue?
The production, use, and disposal of plastic generates harmful effects on human health and the environment. International human rights law obligates governments to address such harms and to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights to health, water, access to information, and a healthy environment.
The plastic life cycle begins with oil and gas extraction. Ninety-nine percent of plastics are made of fossil fuels, including oil and gas, and plastics and petrochemicals are estimated to drive 30 percent of the growth in oil demand by 2030 and nearly half of the growth in oil demand by 2050. Oil and gas production can emit toxic chemicals through drilling operations, mechanical equipment, storage tanks, and transportation of fuels. For example, benzene, a carcinogenic compound, is often emitted from petroleum operations into the water, soil, and air, which can threaten the health of nearby communities.
Plastic production and manufacturing turn fossil fuel raw materials and chemical additives into plastic that can be used to make packaging, consumer products, and other goods. The refining and manufacturing processes pose threats to human rights, particularly to communities living close to petrochemical production facilities and refineries, by emitting harmful pollutants into the air and water. Refineries and plastic production facilities are often located in low-income and marginalized communities and communities of color, which are disproportionately impacted by pollution and environmental harm.
Plastic products are then used by consumers and in industrial activities. Some studies have linked ingested plastic particles with impacts on cell function, chronic inflammation, and disruptions to the endocrine system. Currently, plastic producers around the world are not required to identify chemical additives in their products, so consumers are not able to access information about the chemical makeup of plastics and their potential impacts on their health.
After use, some plastic is recycled and returns to the plastic production stage. Most plastic is disposed of in formal landfill or informal dumpsites or is incinerated at an industrial facility or disposed of through open burning. When plastic is dumped or landfilled, it naturally breaks down into microplastics, polluting the soil, water, air, wildlife, and human bodies. Methods to dispose of plastic waste, including incineration, contribute to short-term and long-term health effects as harmful chemicals and particulate matter are released into the air.
Why are plastics an increasing problem?
Since the 1950s, plastic has evolved from being a less common, multiuse material to being ubiquitous in modern equipment, packaging, textiles, and other common goods. Global annual plastic production has soared from two million metric tons in 1950 to 380 million metric tons in 2015, a 190-fold increase.
Not only has plastic use increased over recent decades, but plastic production is also projected to triple from 2015 to 2060. Plans to scale up the plastic industry are largely driven by the world’s largest oil and gas producing companies, alongside consumer goods companies. As countries around the world begin to address their dependence on oil and gas as a source of energy, fossil fuel producing companies are increasing investments in plastic and petrochemical production, as well as increasing capacity to make plastic, as an alternative area of growth.
The same fossil fuel companies have led decades-long disinformation campaigns to advance the myth that plastic is recyclable, while internal industry documents as early as the 1970s show that plastic producers knew recycling wasn’t an acceptable solution.
How do plastics contribute to the climate crisis?
Plastics are a major contributor to climate change. The extraction, transport, and refining of oil and gas, their conversation into the raw materials for plastics, and the transportation and burning of plastic waste all emit significant quantities of greenhouse gases, which are contributing to the climate crisis. In 2019, global production, disposal, and incineration of plastic emitted 850 million metric tons of CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, as much as would be emitted by 189 500-Megawatt coal power plants.
If plastic use continues to grow as projected, by 2050 the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production and incineration will reach 15 percent of the global carbon budget, making global climate goals extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach.
What makes plastics toxic?
Chemical additives are added to plastics during production to change or enhance performance, functionality, or other properties of the plastic production. While chemical additives give plastic products qualities that make them useful, they can also be toxic environmental pollutants and harmful to human health. For example, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are common chemical additives in plastic that are known to harm human health and are linked with cancer and harm to reproductive systems.
How do plastics affect at-risk groups and marginalized communities?
Exposure to toxins in plastic products – and emitted during disposal – can have particular and unique impacts on children, women, and pregnant and older people due to biological factors. Women exposed to endocrine disrupting chemicals, including BPA, are at increased risk of polycystic ovarian syndrome and recurrent miscarriages. Exposure to these chemicals prior to and during childbearing years can result in increased likelihood of children being born with disabilities. Children, when exposed to the same levels of air pollution as adults, are at risk for more acute health impacts due to their rapid development. Children growing up in areas with high levels of industrial air pollution are likely to have reduced lung function. Exposure to chemicals may lead to harmful effects that do not appear until puberty or adulthood.
Older people are also particularly affected. As the human body ages, changes in organ functioning may make it harder for people’s bodies to process environmental pollutants, including toxins emitted during plastic recycling. A slower metabolism, coupled with earlier-life exposure, can lead to pollutants remaining in older people’s bodies for a longer period than for younger adults, increasing their exposure to toxins.
Isn’t recycling the solution to the plastics crisis?
No. While recycling is often portrayed as a positive, environmentally friendly practice, when plastic is recycled, it releases pollutants and toxins into local environments, threatening the health of those working in and living nearby recycling facilities.
Human Rights Watch documented that plastic recycling in Turkey – the largest recipient of plastic waste exports from the European Union – is harming people’s health. Pollutants and toxins emitted from recycling affect workers, including children, and people living near recycling facilities. Workers and residents of neighboring communities described respiratory problems, severe headaches, skin ailments, lack of protective equipment, and little to no access to medical treatment for occupational illnesses. Many of the facilities Human Rights Watch visited were located dangerously close to homes, in contravention of Turkish laws and environmental regulations.
Why is plastic waste being shipped around the world?
Countries in the Global North, including the United States, Canada, Japan, United Kingdom, and European Union member states, have routinely exported their plastic waste as “recycling” to countries with weak or nonexistent environmental regulations, low labor costs, and little government oversight on environmental and labor rights violations. They do so because they lack the physical infrastructure to recycle it domestically, and profits can be made by selling it to companies in other countries for processing. In this way, they externalize the health, environmental, and economic costs of their high consumption economies instead of reducing levels of consumption or investing in waste management.
For decades, China was the world's single largest importer of plastic waste, importing approximately 45 percent of global plastic waste from 1992 to 2016. Due to the high environmental impacts of plastic waste, the Chinese government created what it calls its National Sword Policy in January 2018, which banned the import of most plastic waste. So exporting countries have searched for new places to send their waste, and Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Turkey have recently become key destinations for the world’s plastic waste exports.
What is the Global Plastics Treaty?
In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly agreed to draft a multilateral environmental treaty addressing the global plastics crisis. The mandate paves the way for countries to establish a legally binding instrument to address the impacts of plastics throughout their lifecycle.
What are some key steps governments can take to ensure the Global Plastics Treaty enhances respect for human rights?
Governments in the UN Environmental Assembly should negotiate and adopt a plastics treaty that protects and respects human rights. A comprehensive and rights-respecting Global Plastics Treaty requires the meaningful participation of civil society. Such participation should include representation from people most at risk from the harm of plastic production, use, and disposal, including Indigenous people, people with disabilities, older people, children and young people, women, waste pickers and workers in the informal economy, labor unions, minorities, and people living in poverty.
Some key elements of a global plastics treaty that would protect human rights are requirements to:
- Take steps to decrease the production and consumption of plastic.
- End the production of unnecessary virgin plastic.
- Increase transparency about chemical additives in plastics and limit the addition of harmful chemical additives in plastic products.
- Protect the rights to health, water, food, and a healthy environment of at-risk populations and marginalized communities affected by plastic pollution.
Originally published on November 23, 2022, prior to the first meeting session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, this Q&A has been updated to reflect the conclusion of the first session.