A UN Special Rapporteur has issued two reports on human rights in the area of hazardous substances. One report addresses the stages of the plastics cycle and their impacts on human rights, and the report focuses on the right to science in the context of toxic substances.

Marcos Orellana, the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, writes that the global plastics crisis reveals how every stage of the plastics cycle, including extraction and refining, production, transport, use, and waste. has adverse effects on the full enjoyment of human rights. The report (A/76/207) includes recommendations to address the negative consequences of the plastics cycle on human rights and integrate a human rights-based approach in transitioning to a chemically safe circular economy. The report contends that plastics’ toxic chemical additives represent one of the greatest constraints to plastics joining the chemical-free circular economy.

The report also addresses the impacts on those in vulnerable situations, including:

  • workers in the petrochemical and plastics manufacturing industries and waste pickers;
  • children, who when exposed to hazardous substances in the plastics cycle suffer a violation of their rights to life, health, physical integrity, and a toxic-free environment;
  • women, who are politically underrepresented in decision-making processes;
  • people of African descent, who endure proximity to a higher concentration of hazardous waste facilities, contaminated sites, and dumping grounds; 
  • indigenous peoples, whose lands are contaminated through exploitation of fossil fuels, which comprise the bulk of plastic feedstock;
  • coastal communities inundated with marine plastic litter;
  • people living in poverty, who often reside close to chemical industries and are on the receiving end of the global plastic waste flow; and
  • future generations, whose ability to enjoy their human rights and a healthy environment is being threatened.

The report explains that international instruments relevant to the plastics cycle, including the Basel Convention, the Stockholm Convention, and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, do not address several challenges: reducing the volumes of plastics production and waste; controlling hazardous additives in plastics; promoting a chemically safe circular economy; or protecting human rights.

Regarding the SDGs, the publication notes that SDG 14 (life below water) establishes an index for plastic debris density; SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), namely target 6.3, addresses reducing pollution, eliminating dumping, and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials; and SDG 12 (sustainable production and consumption), including target 12.4, addresses the environmentally sound management of chemicals and wastes throughout their life cycle.

The Special Rapporteur’s report provides recommends for States, businesses, and relevant international agreements and mechanisms, including that States adopt a human rights-based approach to plastics management and negotiate a new international legally binding instrument on plastics. It also calls for phasing out subsidies and export credit and guarantees for fossil fuel extraction, plastics production facilities, and plastic-to-energy projects. Businesses could direct research and development towards developing safe and circular non-single use delivery methods.

The Special Rapporteur also prepared a report on the right to science in the context of toxic substances (A/HRC/48/61). It discusses: the right to science in international human rights instruments; the use of science to inform toxics policy through use of the best available science, the precautionary principle, and effective science-policy interface (SPI) platforms; and threats to the right to science in the toxics context.

The Special Rapporteur recommends that States, inter alia: create structures and procedures that engage independent scientific bodies and scientists to inform policy decisions, legislative developments, and regulation concerning hazardous substances; ensure proper evaluation of chemicals and the disclosure of scientific information to the public, prior to products being authorized for release on the market; protect scientists from pressure to act contrary to their scientific responsibilities and from possible intimidation or retaliation; and establish appropriate penalties for businesses that withhold scientific studies and evidence from regulators.

The Special Rapporteur recommends that business enterprises conduct human rights due diligence processes to identify and address any negative human rights impacts of their businesses, and develop and implement robust and effective whistleblower and human rights defender protections. 

The Special Rapporteur recommends that international bodies and mechanisms in the field of chemicals and waste management consider building on the model for avoiding conflicts of interest established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). [OHCHR webpage on Special Rapporteur]