UN Plastics Treaty Should Mandate Protection of Human Rights and Health

    Next week in Ottawa, countries will reconvene to continue negotiations on an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. A revised draft of the treaty published by the United Nations Environment Programme contains certain positive measures to reduce plastic production. However, it lacks the necessary provisions to protect human rights and health from the impacts of plastic pollution, especially for frontline communities and those who are most vulnerable.

    The draft proposes options to address the full life cycle of plastics, from reducing production to eliminating the use of the most hazardous chemicals to improve plastic safety. However, it promotes higher recycling rates to increase producer responsibility without accounting for the human rights and health harm associated with recycling. It also overlooks a significant element of plastic production: fossil fuels. Ninety-nine percent of plastics are made from fossil fuels, which are also the primary driver of the climate crisis.

    In January, a Human Rights Watch report found that communities living alongside fossil fuel and petrochemical operations, including those producing the feedstocks for plastics, in Louisiana, United States, suffer elevated risks and rates of severe health harm, including cancer, respiratory ailments, and maternal, reproductive, and newborn health harm. This area has come to be known as “Cancer Alley” due to parts of it bearing the highest risks of cancer from industrial air pollution in the country. In Cancer Alley, health harm from fossil fuel operations disproportionally impacts Black residents.

    Previously, Human Rights Watch documented the harmful impacts of plastic recycling in Turkey, where people living near recycling facilities suffer respiratory and skin ailments from pollutants and toxins emitted from plastic recycling. The treaty should not promote higher recycling rates without outlining measures to mitigate human rights and health impacts linked to recycling.

    Governments are obligated under international human rights law to respect, protect, and fulfill all human rights, including the rights to health and to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. The plastics treaty should uphold existing obligations and commitments, including by phasing out fossil fuels, to address the climate crisis.

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