Library Paper

The lifecycle of plastics and human rights

Bhavani Narayanaswamy, Graham Hamley, and Tallash Kantai

UK Research and Innovation; One Ocean Hub; GCRF

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Plastic pollution is a threat to human rights, particularly to the right to health and adequate food, according to a submission to the UN's Call on The Lifecycle of Plastics and Human Rights.

In 2021, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights launched a Call for Submissions on The lifecycle of plastics and human rights with submissions due for Wednesday 21 April 2021. Bhavani Narayanaswamy, Graham Hamley and Tallash Kantai submitted a contribution consisted of four different sections:

Information on plastics generally
There are current estimates of 8 million tons of plastic being deposited into the oceans each year, accounting for 80% of all marine debris. The amount of plastic waste generated by individuals in many Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) is often relatively low but many LMICs are unable to adequately manage their waste. A number of pathogens have been discovered to preferentially colonise plastic in the marine environment.

Impacts of ocean plastics pollution on human rights’ holders
Marine plastics constrain the ability of individuals to enjoy the highest attainable standard of
health. Human health is dependent on marine biodiversity in a variety of ways. Viewed through a human rights lens, the harm to marine biodiversity from plastic pollution threatens the enjoyment of both the right to health and the right to adequate food. In both developed and developing nations, the greatest burden will likely be borne by already vulnerable groups, including women, children, the elderly, indigenous peoples and local communities, and economically challenged coastal communities.

Implications of ocean plastics pollution for duty bearers
Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), states are
obligated to avoid unjustifiable retrogressive measures that would move them further away from
fully realizing economic, social or cultural rights — including the rights to health and to food. Implementation of relevant policy and legal frameworks in recycling ocean plastics.

International legal framework in recycling marine plastics
In 2019, parties to the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal agreed to address marine plastic pollution by designating as hazardous certain
types of plastic waste. This resulted in amending the Convention’s Annex VIII to include plastic
and plastic mixtures as a hazardous waste, and therefore subject to the Prior Informed Consent
(PIC) procedure. In designating this waste as hazardous, potential importing countries must prove
that they can deal with it in an environmentally sound manner, thus ensuring it stays out of the
ocean. Significantly, countries now also have the right to turn down shipments of such waste,
providing a measure of protection to developing countries without the means to deal with it.