Last updated: 12 Nov 2023
Plastic pollution is not only a threat to our environment, it is also a threat to people, as plastics impact human rights along its lifecycle. This page is part of our Plastics and the Environment series, a set of online resources on the plastics crisis, its impact on people and the environment, and international cooperation to address this global problem. They include resources and news from organizations in Geneva and beyond, including UN-system organizations and other IOs, governmental authorities, civil society organizations, academic institutions and journals, and renowned newspapers.
The world is facing a plastics crisis. Plastic pollution is found all around the globe. Plastics are negatively affecting people and the environment at each stage of their lifecycle – extraction of fossil fuel, production, manufacturing, use, recycling, and disposal. The impacts are felt in a wide range of areas, including on biodiversity, climate change, human health and human rights. This page focuses on the impacts of plastics and the chemicals they contain on human health.
Plastics and Human Rights at a Glance
The complexity of plastics is unlike other problems that the international community has confronted. Indeed, the plastic crisis involves issues of biodiversity, technology and trade, among others. However, plastics also have serious impacts on people and their rights. Every stage of the plastic lifecycle affects human rights. These impacts include toxic pollution released in manufacturing, exposure to toxic additives in plastic consumer products, waste mismanagement, disinformation campaign about the risks of and solutions to plastic pollution, and more. Human rights principles are thus critical to support legitimate and effective responses.
Safeguarding the human rights of present and future generations that are compromised by the growing toxification of the planet demands that the international community reverse the plastics crisis. Addressing the negative impacts of the plastics cycle on human rights and integrating a human rights-based approach to plastics policy are indispensable for effective and legitimate solutions to the global plastics problem.
Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Report to the UNGA (A/76/207)
Further resources on Plastics and Human Rights
- UN experts warn of “toxic tidal wave” as plastic pollutes environment and threatens human rights | OHCHR | 1 June 2023
- Plastics and Human Rights: Questions and Answers | Human Rights Watch | 23 November 2022
- The stages of the plastics cycle and their impacts on human rights | UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights | A/76/207 | 22 July 2021
GEN Events on Plastics and Human Rights
Infringement on Human Rights
Recent studies and reports have identified quite a large number of human rights impacts and outright violations throughout the life cycle of plastics. Plastics greatly impact the enjoyment of various human rights, notably the right to health. Additionally, the right to science and information are infringed upon, as misinformation campaigns led by some actors of the plastic industry have hidden the true cost of plastics. Due to long-lasting environmental degradation and climate change, plastics also impact the rights of future generations.
- #breakfreefromplastic Toxic Tours
- Mismanaged Plastic Levels Could Almost Double Unless Action Is Taken | Forbes | 20 September 2023
- Plastic pollution increases flooding risk for more than 200 million of world’s poorest people | Tearfund | 24 May 2023
- Inclusion of the Informal Recycling Sector in a Global Agreement on Plastic Pollution | IKHAPP | 11 May 2023
- Joint letter to the European Commission– Nanomaterials in everyday products | Civil Society Organizations | 14 March 2023
- Danone to face French court over plastic megapollution | Client Earth | 9 January 2023
- Global Plastics Treaty: Opportunity to Protect Rights | Human Rights Watch | 23 November 2022
- Turkey: Plastic Recycling Harms Health, Environment | Human Rights Watch | 21 September 2022
- Children as young as nine say they are ill from work recycling plastic in Turkey | The Guardian | 21 September 2022
- Louisiana Court Delivers Major Victory in Fight Against Formosa Plastics | CIEL | 14 September 2022
- Formosa Plastics Group: A Serial Offender of Environmental and Human Rights (A Case Study) | CIEL | October 2021
- Marine plastic litter in East Asian Seas: Gender, human rights and economic dimensions | UNEP, COBSEA & SEI | 11 November 2019
The social and environmental cost of plastics is unevenly distributed around the globe and among social groups. Vulnerable groups, such as children, poorer communities, workers in the informal sector, and small island developing States, are disproportionately impacted. Meanwhile, traditional approaches to regulate environmental issues often overlook issues of environmental justice and access to remedies. Existing responses to address plastic pollution face this limitation, underscoring the need for a human rights based approach.
- Babies in the global south are being poisoned by plastic from the north. Yet they are missing from the data | The Guardian | 30 November 2023
- Myths about plastic pollution are leading to public confusion: here’s why | The Conversation | 20 November 2023
- Who pays for plastic pollution? | Towards a Treaty to End Plastic Pollution | WWF | 7 November 2023
- Towards a Just Transition Away from Plastic Pollution | Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty | 31 October 2023
- High-stakes treaty negotiations expose the challenge of just transition in the plastics sector | Equality Times| 30 October 2023
- Toxic vinyl chloride is a widespread environmental injustice | Environment Health News | 30 April 2023
- Plastic colonialism: Mexico’s waste imports from the US double in two years | El País | April 2023
- Inclusion of the Informal Recycling Sector in a Global Agreement on Plastic Pollution | IKHAPP | April 2023
- The grim price paid for our plastics addiction by seasonal farmworkers and their children in Türkiye | Umut Kuruüzüm | 11 April 2023
- The Plastic Crisis, Human Dignity, and Care for our Common Home | Cardinal Michael Czerny | 21 March 2023
- How Plastic Creates Injustice | Bani Dhaliwal | EarthDay | 14 March 2023
- NEGLECTED: Environmental Justice Impacts of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution | UNEP | 7 April 2021
- Plastic pollution disproportionately hitting marginalized groups, UN environment report finds | UN News | 30 March 2021
Plastics and Gender
These negative impacts of plastic pollution are disproportionately distributed around the globe and among social groups. Women, especially in rural communities, may be uniquely exposed to environmental threats whilst facing limited access to social protection and the resources to build resilience. At the same time, women play a central yet largely invisible role in the use and recycling of plastic. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that each stage of the plastic value chain has gender implications. Women can also be important agents of change, whose potential to participate in environmental protection may remain untapped. The resources in this section shed light on the intersection of gender, plastics and the environment.
- Women’s Health and Chemical Exposures | IPEN | August 2023
- Gender and Plastics. A review of the links in select Caribbean and Pacific islands | IUCN, Norad & Profundo | 17 March 2023
- Why are women more affected by plastic pollution (and how can they be protected)? | Vogue France | 9 March 2023
- Why gender is at the heart of transforming the plastics value chain? | Elsie Odonkor and Katherine Gilchrist, Global Plastic Action Partnership| 26 May 2021
- Guide to Ensure Gender-Responsive Action in Eliminating Plastic Pollution | World Economic Forum | May 2021
- Three experts on why eradicating plastic pollution will help achieve gender equality| Kristin Hughes, Global Plastic Action Partnership | 31 March 2021
- Women Leading the Plastic Revolution | WWF | 8 March 2021
- We Need a Gender-Sensitive Approach to Tackle Plastic Pollution | Arzucan Askin | West Africa Coastal Areas Management Program | 14 May 2020
- Why gender matters in tackling marine plastic litter | Stockholm Environment Institute | 11 November 2019
- Promoting gender equality a “crucial contribution” in effort to restore, protect our plant’s oceans|UNDESA | June 2019
- Gender equality and preventing plastic pollution – Issue Brief | SEA Circular | 2019
- Gender Mainstreaming in the Management of the Marine and Coastal Ecosystems | UNEP & Gender and Water Alliance | 2019
- Plastics, Gender and the Environment | Women Engage for a Common Future | November 2017
Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Context of Plastics
In the design of a chemically safe circular economy, human rights principles play an indispensable role. The Human Rights Council recognized that everyone has the right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, including the right to toxic-free environments where people can safely live, work, study and play.
In an analysis of human rights impacts along the plastic lifecycle provided in the report by the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, presented at the UN General Assembly in 2021, the Special Rapporteur discusses the need for such human rights to guide the transition towards a safe circular economy of plastics at each and every step of the lifecycle of plastics. This includes:
- the right to information to prevent exposure and enable safe product design,
- participation in policy decisions,
- access to justice and remedies for victims, and
- just transition to support vulnerable groups.
The principles of prevention, precaution, and polluter-pays are also essential to assess potential solutions.
In the context of the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council, the Permanent Representative of Peru, on behalf of Peru and 32 other countries, delivered a statement underscoring that “The impact of plastic pollution on a broad range of human rights is undeniable.” The statement urges Member States to call for a plastics treaty firmly rooted in a human rights-based approach that reduces inequalities, enables just transition, and protects the environment.
- Information submitted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Labour Organization | OHCHR and ILO | 12 November 2023
- HRC48 Side Event – Plastics and human rights | Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogue | 23 September 2021
- The stages of the plastics cycle and their impacts on human rights | UNGA Report (A/76/207) | UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights | 22 July 2021
- Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues – Plastics & Human Rights | Geneva Environment Network | 14 January 2021
- Statement by the Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights to the Ad hoc Open-ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics (AHEG-4) | SR Toxics | OHCHR Special Procedures | 13 November 2020
- SEA circular Issue Brief 01: A human rights-based approach to preventing plastic pollution | Sea Circular | March 2020
More on the Plastics Crisis
Our special series “Plastics and the Environment” provides resources on the status of the global plastic pollution, its impact on people and the environment, and international cooperation to address the plastics crisis. An analysis of human rights impacts along the plastic lifecycle is provided in the report by the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, presented at the UN General Assembly in 2021. In the context of the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council, the Permanent Representative of Peru, on behalf of Peru and 32 other countries, delivered a statement underscoring that “The impact of plastic pollution on a broad range of human rights is undeniable.” The statement urges Member States to call for a plastics treaty firmly rooted in a human rights-based approach that reduces inequalities, enables just transition, and protects the environment.