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)

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. 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.

Environmental Injustice

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.

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.

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.