14 Jan 2021
14:00–15:00

Lieu: Online | Webex

Organisation: Geneva Environment Network

The Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues aim to facilitate further engagement and discussion among the stakeholders in International Geneva and beyond. In addition, they intend to address the plastic crisis and support coordinated approaches that can lead to more efficient decision making.

About the Dialogues

The world is facing a plastic crisis, the status quo is not an option. Plastic pollution is a serious issue of global concern which requires an urgent and international response involving all relevant actors at different levels. Many initiatives, projects and governance responses and options have been developed to tackle this major environmental problem, but we are still unable to cope with the amount of plastic we generate. In addition, there is a lack of coordination which can better lead to a more effective and efficient response.

Various actors in Geneva are engaged in rethinking the way we manufacture, use, trade and manage plastics. The Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues aim at outreaching and creating synergies among these actors, highlighting efforts made by intergovernmental organizations and governments, businesses, the scientific community, civil society and individuals in the hope of informing and creating stronger synergies and coordinated actions. The dialogues will also look at what the different stakeholders have achieved at all levels, present the latest research and governance options.

In addition, although the dialogues target stakeholders from all continents, they primarily aim to encourage increased engagement of the Geneva community in the run-up to various global environmental negotiations, such as:

This first session of dialogues will end in February 2021 to build momentum towards the first session of UNEA-5. It will aim to facilitate further engagement and discussions among the International Geneva stakeholders and actors across the regions and support coordinated approaches that can lead to more efficient global decision making. It will also intend to provide a platform to further carry the discussion from the recently conclude Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group (AHEG) on Marine Litter and Microplastics towards UNEA-5 part 2 in 2022.

The Plastics and Human Rights session is the third dialogue to be organized leading to and making recommendations towards the High-Level Dialogue on Plastic Governance Dialogue in February 2021.

The dialogues are organized in collaboration with the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretariat, the Center for International Environmental Law, the Global Governance Centre at the Graduate Institute, Norway, and Switzerland.

Plastics and Human Rights Session

Twenty years ago, the Special Rapporteurs on Toxics and Human Rights (Special Rapporteur Toxics) already mentioned that “the export of plastic wastes represents a potential risk to life, health and the environment.” Twenty years later, our understanding of the interlinkages between environmental degradation and human rights violations has matured, as well as our consideration of full life-cycle approaches to identify impacts of materials and activities.

Recent studies and reports have identified quite a large number of human rights impacts and outrights violations throughout the life cycle of plastics as summarized by the recent intervention of the Special Rapporteurs:

  • Children suffer a silent assault on their right to health, and often on their right to life, where plastic toys, utensils and other products contain toxic substances that leach and enter their bodies;
  • Coastal and fishing communities suffer in their ability to enjoy the right to food, as a result of dwindling fish resources from plastic pollution, not to mention contamination from oil extraction and tankers disasters;
  • Workers in the oil and gas industry, and communities around production facilities, often suffer violations of their right to health as a result of exposure to hazardous substances emitted in the production process of plastics;
  • Users and consumers often experience obstacles to the enjoyment of their right to environmental and health information about the volumes and hazards of plastics;
  • Indigenous peoples and local communities endure violations of their right to water from massive plastic pollution; and,
  • Countless individuals experience an assault on their right to personal integrity from the exposure to hazardous substances that leach from plastics and find their way to their bodies (as demonstrated by the  recent study finding microplastic in all placental portion, maternal, fetal and amniochorial membranes).

The set of 15 “Principles on the protection of workers from exposure to toxic substances” developed by the former Special Rapporteur Toxics is particularly relevant to the life cycle of plastics, including production, recovery, and disposal. (A/HRC/42/41)

During this session, leading experts discussed the human rights aspect of the plastic life cycle and identified the possible roles and extent of a rights-based approach to address the plastics crisis, including the protection to the most vulnerable groups in society, the access to information, participation in decision making, and ensuring accountability.

Other Sessions

Speakers

Marcos A. ORELLANA

UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes

Angela KARIUKI

Programme Management Officer, Law Division, United Nations Environment Programme

Amélie TAOUFIQ

Legal Officer, Executive Office, Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions

David AZOULAY

Director, Environmental Health Program, Center for International Environmental Law

Lena ESKELAND (moderator)

Permanent Mission of Norway to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva

Summary

Welcome and Introduction

Welcome | Lena ESKELAND, Norway

Plastic pollution affects everybody around the Earth. Many communities lack good waste management, and increasing pollution represents a threat to both ecosystems and human health. Already vulnerable groups suffer the most from this challenge. Norway recognizes that this matter is due to a lack of good governance, and thus, sees a new global agreement as the most effective solution to address plastic pollution.

The recent Amendments on plastics to the Basel Convention have entered into force in early 2021 and Norway believes that this new international regime will be able to tackle unregulated trade and is an important step to a strong global governance to prevent plastic pollution.

Human rights defenders worldwide play a crucial role to highlighting challenges related to plastic pollution. There are also many links with humanitarian issues, a topic in which Norway is active, for instance for reducing plastic pollution in refugee camps.

Setting the scene

Plastics and Human Rights | Marcos ORELLANA, UN Special Rapporteur

In the 25 years of the mandate on toxics and human rights, issues around plastics have been looked at. Already 20 years ago, it was reported that exports of plastic waste represent a potential risk to live, health and the environment. Last October, the mandate was renewed, and the resolution identified the importance of addressing gaps and shortcomings in the effectiveness of international regulatory mechanisms concerning hazardous substances and waste. It is urgent to address the interface of plastics and human rights, since gaps and shortcomings in the area are significant. Talking about a rights-based approach to the lifecycle of plastics can help prevent and redress human rights infringements.

The impacts of plastics on human rights are undeniable. More 300 million tons of plastics are produced each year, and the complexity of plastics composition render the impacts even more significant. The negative impacts of exposure to plastics on health have been documented and compromise the enjoyment of the right to health. The recent scientific finding of microplastics in human placenta also demonstrates the connections to the rights of future generations.

However, exposure is not the only issue: the whole life-cycle of plastics has impacts.  Many irresponsible practices are observed in relation to the extraction of oil and gas, which is needed to produce plastics. One can think of the spills in the Amazon rain forest from decaying pipelines and the local communities impacted by extractive activities. Plastics production also generated impacts, none the least with regards to greenhouse gases emissions. As the linkages between climate change and human rights are increasingly understood, the 1.34 gigatons added per year to the atmosphere from plastic production is consequential.

The use of plastics exposes people, including children, to health risks. The right to information is also comprised by the many misinformation campaigns on recycling. These are a deliberate strategy by certain industries in the plastics sector that have presented recycling as a solution despite the knowledge that it is not. Finally, disposal of plastic waste impacts livelihoods, for instance for communities who rely tourism and see their beaches flooded with litter. The burning of plastic waste, which releases toxic components, is also a problem with regards to the right to health. Disposal is a complex issue and we should be cautious of false solutions. In this regard, circular thinking is particularly relevant.

An analysis of the impacts of plastics could not be complete without raising the issue of the disproportioned impacts on certain vulnerable groups, including children. Small island developing states are also particularly affected. On this matter, the working group on business and human rights organized an event on plastics and human rights in the first UN pacific forum on business and human rights in December.

The current fragmented response to the plastics crisis creates gaps and shortcomings. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) has taken important steps to prevent garbage discharges including plastics. But there remain many questions about fishing nets or containers lots at sea, as well as cost allocation and effectiveness. Who pays for the facilities in the ports, located within the territory of states, that treat waste generated by ships? We are moving the problem from the sea to the port, but we need to think of what happens to that waste after it has been moved. The International Maritime Organization is acting in collaboration with its Member States and produced an action plan looking at these issues, which is a very welcomed step.

These questions are also relevant for the Basel Convention, which includes provisions to are intended to strengthen the sound management of waste. However, the Convention remains centered around trade and the question of the management of plastics which are offloaded and handled by states remains a challenge. Monitoring the Basel Amendments also represents a challenge. While the work of the Compliance Committee is important, there is currently not direct access by civil society to raise cases of non-compliance.

These two examples show the importance of a rights-based approach to address the plastic crisis. Such an approach is grounded in (1) participation through the involvement of communities, (2) monitoring, public reporting and transparent information, (3) accountability through extended producer responsibility and overcoming linear thinking in product design, (4) liability and compensation for harm, and (5) an ethics centered on human responsibility and reconnecting with nature. Significant progress in extended producer responsibility has been made in many countries, but a blind spot remains when looking beyond boundaries.

In conclusion, the 25 years of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights has gathered significant information to support a comprehensive and binding response to address the life cycle of plastics. We should be reminded that it is not just a matter of management or technology, plastics represents a real human problem, impacting the life of countless individuals around the world. Given the urgency and gravity of the matter, the Special Rapporteur plans to dedicate his first report to the General Assembly later this year in September to the issue of plastics and human rights and he welcome inputs from Member States into this process.

A Rights-based Approach to Address the Plastics Crisis

UN Environment Programme Perspective | Angela KARIUKI, UNEP

The topic of plastics and human rights is gaining momentum. The UN Environment Assembly has adopted resolutions over recent years that target specific aspects of pollution, including air quality, waste, soil, marine litter and microplastics, and chemicals and waste. An implementation plan that cuts across all these resolutions has been developed with the aim to promote accelerated action, to enhance capacity to address pollution, including plastic pollution, and to contribute to achieving the SDGs.

Recently, the Law Division of UNEP has started working specifically on the topic of plastic pollution in the context of human rights. The initial efforts focus on looking at the issue through an environmental justice lens. What has clearly appeared from our work is that public understanding of plastic pollution has risen considerably in the past years. People now understand the consequences of single-use plastics on our waterways and oceans for instance. However, the broader context in which this pollution exists and the full extent of the impacts of plastic pollution are far less understood.

Plastics have been incorporated at an astonishing speed into our lives and it is persistent. The problem of plastics is probably less of an issue of consumption and proper disposal, than one of the fundamental nature of plastics.  As a product, there are probably unlike anything that national and international governance has dealt with before and their pollution transcends national boundaries. Combined, these aspects make plastic pollution a truly wicked problem.

UNEP Law division will release a report in the upcoming weeks that aims to clarify the interlinkages between environmental justice and plastic pollution and to examine policy issues that still need to be addressed. It investigates the impacts of plastics on peoples’ rights, health and well-being. It will also include practical recommendations that different actors can take to address the challenges of plastic pollution.

To fully address the problem, we need a step-by-step understanding of the plastics life cycle and how each phase impacts vulnerable communities. The report reviews international treaties and conventions, highlighting historical successes and challenges, as well as regional and local policies that can help bring about the plan for a pollution free planet.

While environmental justice is thankfully entering the mainstream, it is still not a traditional consideration within the marine conservation field. Efforts to reduce plastic pollution in that sector are currently inadequate to address the specific needs of marginalized groups. The issues of environmental justice and plastic pollution are also very difficult to address because they don’t fit neatly into one category of global governance. Procedural injustices may also hinder the application of national legislation, which then necessitates a more robust international framework.

The report puts forward practical policy recommendations to help develop a road map for a rights-based approach to address the plastic crisis. There is no single strategy will be enough to fully address the problem and its impacts on human rights. Different stakeholders need to identify action what are most applicable to their context. UNEP is also looking into how to best provide assistance to stakeholder groups (CBOs, NGOs, and countries).

Governments are tossed with this enormous challenge of developing and implementing policy to address plastic pollution. In this process, they must be cautious, integrate science, incorporate environmental justice principles and apply the precautionary principle. This will require a multi-sectoral collaborative approach as well as improved monitoring and reporting

In addition to traditional partnerships with countries to provide technical and legal assistance and advisory services to global mechanisms to address plastic pollution, UNEP also focuses on education and awareness with the aim of integrating the environmental justice lens. Resources for the general public and most affected groups, including front-line communities are being developed. One example of a project just finalized as part of the Beat Plastic Pollution at UNEP are educational videos on plastic pollution.

The problem of plastics is complex, and policy developed to address it is thus challenging. But there are several notable efforts that are underway. These efforts should be rooted in a just policy approach that prioritizes the needs of those who are disproportionately affected by plastic pollution. When we leave vulnerable populations out of our considerations, we risk falling into the trap of grandiose but empty gestures.

The Chemicals Conventions Perspective | Amélie TAOUFIQ, BRS MEAs

Where does a rights-based approach lies within the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions and mandate? The common goal of the three conventions is to protect human health and the environment and thus there are fundamental links with human rights. The connection between environmental issues and human rights is now undisputed, and there is a real momentum to be seized. The Paris Agreement made an important step in that regard, being the first environmental treaty referring explicitly to human rights in its preamble.

Within the Basel Convention, a shift occurred in 2019 with the decision to include plastic waste under the scope of the convention and establishing the Plastic Waste Partnership. This represent the beginning of the journey of BRS and plastics, but there is much more to come. The rights-based approach can contribute to other mandates of the convention. The Stockholm Convention for instance refers explicitly to vulnerable groups, including the children, the women, the disabled, the poor and ethnic communities. These groups are at higher risks with regards to plastic pollution.

What is next in terms of policy is the occasion to adapt the Convention to the recent challenges. As treaties are driven by the Parties, it is mostly at the Conference of Parties (COP) that steps can be taken. It is up to the Parties to improve the legally binding tools in order to address rising issues, such as the human rights impacts of plastic pollution. There used to be political fear that mentioning human rights in environmental negotiations would not be helpful. However, since the climate negotiations, it has been recognized that such an approach can actually help negotiations. This can be done within the forum of the COP where decisions to continue to work on plastics will be taken.

Important work is being done under the Plastic Waste Partnership, where cooperation with many actors is ongoing. However, more can be done. Upon mandates decided by the Parties, the BRS Secretariat would be happy to work more specifically on the topic and in a more coordinated way to avoid silos between all the international legally binding agreements.

From crises, opportunities can be seized and there is great momentum here. The COVID-19 crisis has shown that connecting the dots between environment, health, human rights, pollution, chemicals and waste is important. The most important thing is to improve what we already have, through the opportunities we are given.

A Binding Agreement | David AZOULAY, CIEL

Impacts on the enjoyment of various and diverse human rights impact are visible throughout the plastics life cycle. As the supply chain of plastics is global, so are the impacts and the responsibilities that need to be addressed. Those two elements, combined with the gaps that currently exist within the global legal framework and responses to the plastic crisis has led a number of countries to express the need for a new legally binding instrument that would address the full life cycle of plastics. While there are several agreements that address specific issues along the plastics production chain, there is currently nothing that considers the entire life cycle and its associated challenges.

Traditional approaches to regulating environmental issues have shortcomings, in so that they often leave out the most vulnerable populations and often overlook issues of environmental justice and access to remedies. Overlooking these issues makes existing instruments incapable of fully addressing the issues and thus leaving the global community facing issues that appear insolvable. The rights-based approach presents a fantastic opportunity to frame the future treaty on plastics in a way that will allow us to go at the root of the issue rather than addressing the symptoms.

Of course, much work remains to be done until we have a treaty. A number of countries are opposed to the idea of a global response to plastics. There are also pushes from different countries and stakeholders to limit the considerations of the plastic crisis to some aspects, such as how to deal with waste. However, the plastic crisis is broad and complex, and its aspects are interconnected. It is very encouraging to see different communities working on health impacts, waste, air quality, climate, human rights or trade and coming together to provide inputs into what the solution could be and should be.

The case for a global legally binding treaty has been strongly made by the presenters today and at previous sessions of these dialogues, as well as by the countless reports produced on the issue. Everyone is invited to share that information and identify how they can support the development of such a treaty from their own position. Specifically with regards to today’s topic, we invite the human rights community to join and provide its insight and incredible expertise. Through the rights-based approach some very innovative approaches to reporting, access to remedy, and access to information have been designed and implemented. These have and should be translated and adapted to address the plastics crisis.

Q&A

Jyotiraj Patra: I am keen to hear your thoughts on the response and engagement from the business and industry, including banks and financial institutions who fund the plastics industry.

Angela: Business and private sector play an important role, and thus need to be involved in the discussion. There is a lot of work that business need to do, including monitoring, reporting, waste management, research and regulations. UNEP is providing resources on practical actions for business, for instance a business specific training on responsible business practices and plastics pollution.

Marcos: Indeed, business can do and must do a lot to address the global plastics crisis. However, we must be aware of the limits of voluntary measures. We have seen examples of deliberate misinformation campaigns which served to delay regulations and support alternatives which are not actual solutions. In those cases, voluntary schemes are not sufficient, and global binding instruments are needed.

David: Companies should abide by the principle of “do no harm”, but unfortunately companies are not always consistent on this matter. Therefore, as Marcos highlighted, there are limits to voluntary initiatives. Some researchers have tracked all the voluntary initiatives made by various industries in relation to plastics over the last 20 to 30 years. They systematically observed that, while those pledges attract lots of media attention, none of them have been fulfilled. Plastics producers today at dedicating 1.5$ billion to support countries better manage their plastic waste. Meanwhile, they are investing 250$ billion to increase plastic production in a world that has no capacity to deal with this plastic even with massive technological advancements. Therefore, it is urgent that companies put their money where their mouth is. Plastic production will have to reduce, and companies who are move ahead will have a market advantage.

Philip McMinn Mitchell: Where can we/ public find details of the volumes of plastic waste by retailer – is it soft drinks, is it packaging for crates on pallets, is it detergents/ commercial raw materials to then target the “waste chain”?

David: Information can be found through the Break Free from Plastics Brand Audits, a citizen science initiative that involves counting and documenting the brands found on plastic waste collected at a cleanup.

Anthony Akpan: The discussion about Plastics and Human rights is new. How can civil society organizations (CSOs) capacities be further built to carry out the necessary advocacy and awareness that is required?

Marcos: CSOs have the opportunity to tell stories and show the human aspects of the plastic crisis. While there is no doubt that environment and human rights are linked, it is essential to inject elements of rights-based approach in order to increase the effectiveness and legitimacy of a global binding responses. The advocacy and awareness of CSOs can help bring the urgency and necessary ambition to resolve this problem.

Yin Yin Win: Plastic waste management is a State responsibility to protect the environment and human rights. There seems to be a lack of emergency action plan in many costal States. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

Marcos: There are clear state responsibilities with regards to the plastic problem. Most state are currently not treating this as a matter of urgency. There are challenges around building awareness, which is needed for stronger response measures. Action is being taken but not at the scale that is necessary to address the problem. While the problem may appear overwhelming, discussions on the issue are shedding lights on some specific components and states can begin addressing these elements. While global action is necessary, state can begin to take action, and some already are. While uncertainty remain, the precaution principle constitute a fundamental building block to act. There’s no need to wait for the global response, although it will be critical to address the problem.

Walter Schuldt (Mission of Ecuador): How to address the threat from the MTs of micro and nanoplastics resulting from the textile and tires, if most of laws and even the future treaty is not doing so yet?

Marcos: while an international global response is necessary, States can begin already to take action and some already are. For example, Brazil took action against the import of retreaded tired from the European Union because of health concerns. It was disputed at the World Trade Organization and the measure was upheld. There is currently no obstacles in the international legal landscape for States to begin taking measures to protect human rights and health from the negative impacts of micro- and nano-plastics in textile, tires, and other consumer products. While uncertainty remain, the precaution principle constitutes a fundamental building block to act. In sum, although a global response is necessary, there is no need to wait for it to start taking action.

Closing

Video

In addition to the live WebEx and Facebook transmissions, the video is available on this webpage.

Documents

Links

The update on Plastics and the Environment provides relevant information and the most recent research, data and articles from the various organizations in international Geneva and other institutions around the world.

Plastics and Human Rights