International law to the rescue or clutching at (plastic) straws? Reflections on the birth of a "full lifecycle" plastics treaty

Switzer, Stephanie and Morgera, Elisa (2022) International law to the rescue or clutching at (plastic) straws? Reflections on the birth of a "full lifecycle" plastics treaty. University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. (

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Plastics are everywhere. They are the ubiquitous modern material; flexible, stable, and remarkably hard wearing. Their utility means we encounter plastics throughout our day. From the face masks we wear to protect us from Covid-19, to our takeaway coffee in the morning – served to us in single use plastic coated cups – to the cellophane wrapped vegetables we buy for our dinner at night, our lives are encased in plastic. Yet, we are becoming more educated of the impacts of plastics. News reports gloomily showcase the discovery of microplastics in our lungs, as well as in our blood. We are now fully aware of the environmental impact of plastics pollution, particularly in the world’s oceans. Indeed, global awareness of the detrimental impacts of marine plastics has increased substantially, with the BBC's The Blue Planet having a particular effect on public consciousness due to its showcasing of emotive images of sea creatures trapped in drinks packaging. Plastics pollution also poses a particular risk to human rights. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights underscored in 2021, "the whole cycle of plastics, at its various stages [extraction of raw materials, which for over 99% of all plastics is produced from fossil fuels, production, transport, use, waste – has become a global threat to human rights." And there is increasing evidence that plastic pollution disproportionately affects marginalized communities. For instance, there is a prevalence of open burning of plastics in many countries in the Global South, including by coastal communities trying to address plastic pollution on beaches, with impacts to air quality and human and ecosystem health. Given the increased public awareness, and indeed concern over the impacts of plastics pollution, the idea that there needs to be a global treaty to tackle this issue has gained momentum over the last number years. Activists, governments, and the general public have all joined forces to call for global action to deal with the plastic soup we are confronted with on a daily basis. While ten years ago the idea of such a treaty would have been unthinkable, in early March 2022, 175 countries endorsed the monumental decision to begin negotiations on a legally binding international instrument on plastic pollution. This decision was taken in at the second part of the 5th United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2). This blog post provides some initial reflections on the need for a new international treaty and its relevance for a healthy ocean and human rights.