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Spring 2024: Plastic

Rights of Nature: Concerted Action to Fight Ocean Plastic Pollution

Nadine Nadow


  • An ecocentric approach is essential to protect the rights of marine ecosystems and the role those systems play in biodiversity.
  • Rights of Nature is a progressive movement, an arm of Earth law that proposes an integrated approach to the problem of plastic pollution.
  • The life cycle of plastic and its inevitable industrial-based pollution creates an imbalance for the rights of nature and individuals.
  • The marine plastic pollution crisis is a disastrous situation that burdens marine ecosystems and the health and well-being of the entire planet.
Rights of Nature: Concerted Action to Fight Ocean Plastic Pollution
Philip Thurston via Getty Images

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When contemplating the problems associated with plastic waste in our oceans, many think only of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a rapidly growing, 620-square-mile collection of floating plastic and other waste in the Pacific Ocean, which has justifiably garnered much attention over the last several years. But the problem is far greater than a single patch. Since the ocean covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, the vast majority of the surface of our planet is contaminated with plastic. The marine plastic pollution crisis is a disastrous situation that burdens marine ecosystems and the health and well-being of the entire planet.

Ingesting plastic can pose life-threatening outcomes to all living beings. For sea turtles, eating one plastic item harms their intestines and leads to starvation. Seabirds mistakenly collect plastic as food to feed their young, threatening their survival. Sharp pieces of plastic waste are tearing the internal organs of mammals, birds, and other sea creatures. Plastic bags create blockages, leaving marine life to starve. Plastic fishing nets and six-pack carriers cause strangulation. Seafood that humans ingest, such as salmon and tuna, poisoned by the pollutants leaching from plastics, transmit the toxins into the human food chain. It is not only plastic bags and containers used every day, but most of our packaging materials, cosmetics, household goods, textiles, shoes, and children’s toys that contain plastic byproducts that break down into micro- and nano-plastics. Plastic pollution is threatening all of us. In looking for ways to address this astronomically large and complex plastic contamination issue, the global movement for the Rights of Nature may be our salvation.

Harmful Life Cycle of Plastic Pollution

One must understand the plastic life cycle, from production to disposal, to comprehend the extent of the harm. Fossil fuel is the foundation of plastic production through resourcing and extracting hundreds of millions of tons of oil and gas. The creation and use of plastic produce pollution throughout the entire process—from fossil fuel extraction, to refining, storage, transportation, and finally the use of products like plastic bags, toxic chemicals are emitted at all phases. Short-sighted disposal processes, combined with the natural fracturing down of plastic products into micro- and nano-plastics, result in the spread of the contaminating chemicals and exacerbate the problem. Even incinerators used for resource recovery, as currently designed, release toxic ash including micro- and nano-plastic in exchange for only a modest amount of energy. These airborne toxins are drivers of climate and global warming crises, including rising sea levels and temperatures.

While all natural ecosystems are impacted, it is the ocean that perhaps faces the greatest plastic crisis. The ocean is a critical and intricate ecosystem resource for all life. It generates oxygen, sequesters carbon dioxide, regulates climate, provides nutrients and food sustenance, and economically sustains communities (including local and regional dependent populations) of millions of marine- and land-based species. Earth’s oceans are dynamic and collectively play a critical role in sustaining all life on our planet. Most people think that oceans and ecosystems can evolve and adapt to change. Although the ocean’s biodiversity has core resilience and adapts to disturbances, it is defenseless against the plastic pollution crisis we cause it today. The ocean is facing challenging cumulative impacts from plastic pollution that are outpacing its ability to adapt.

Humans are not spared. Plastic marine debris leads to significant harm to the health and well-being of humans, their economic development, their livelihood, and social justice equity. The life cycle of plastic affects and disproportionately impacts vulnerable, voiceless, and marginalized populations (communities of color, low-income and disadvantaged communities, minorities, all genders, youth, women, refugees, and asylum seekers). The harm also impacts persons living in communities immediately adjacent to high-polluting facilities, including fossil fuel infrastructure, industrial parks, and manufacturing facilities (“fenceline” communities) and those living in spaces impaired permanently by economic disinvestments and other damages (“sacrifice zones”).

Whether humans interact directly or indirectly with plastic, all are impacted by the damaging toxins because they are being released into the environment at all stages of the plastic life cycle. These toxins are known to disrupt neurodevelopment; impact cell function; produce chronic inflammation; increase respiratory illnesses; promote heart disease, cancer, and diabetes; and disrupt the endocrine system and reproductive functions (ovarian syndrome, miscarriages, and birth defects). Peter Stoett, Plastic Pollution: A Global Challenge in Need of Multi-level Justice-centered Solutions, One Earth 5 Commentary, June 2022. Over time, effective management of plastic pollution will improve health, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and climate threats, and support the preservation of the ecological integrity of the ocean.

While much of the public characterizes plastic as a beneficial resource tied to commerce and economic growth, the environmental degradation from plastic threatens the sustainability of the natural and financial resources of all communities, putting them at risk of extinction or bankruptcy. Many communities, such as small island and coastal developing countries, Indigenous peoples and local communities, and coastal and fishing communities, rely on the economic benefits derived from the ocean’s resources. Plastic-associated environmental impacts negatively affect fishing, harvesting, tourism and aesthetics, recreation, farming, and aquaculture. Communities bearing the brunt of the plastic crisis face very real social justice issues. Giving the underrepresented a voice is an essential component of environmental and social justice, and is a prerequisite for any meaningful remedy to occur.

Reformation to Fight the Plastic Crisis

The infrastructure of western legal governance is controversial and frequently favors development revenues over individuals. Customary international laws are nonbinding instruments with voluntary commitments and take considerable energy to implement. The western legal constraints do not foundationally protect the environment and the rights and voices of its inhabitants. Procedural inequities include little or no standing for powerless abutters, lack of access to guidance, and no rights in decision-making. Commerce and big business do not have the right to burden future generations with the consequences of their current malpractices. Governance must change its focus by demanding limitations on the destruction of the ocean.

Colonial ideology, the belief that the cultural values of the colonizers are superior, should not drive plastic pollution legislation. For centuries, colonial governments deprived communities of their rights, and colonial ideology interferes with traditional ways of life by disrupting the relationship between land, ocean, and nature. To correct this imbalance, states need to implement more forceful regulations to protect biological resources. It is equally important that these protections are co-managed using strategies that prioritize social and environmental justice transparency and accountability while recognizing the economic importance of the ocean’s resources and understanding the needs of its abutters. States must acknowledge the interconnectivity between heritage, sociocultural systems, public health, recreation, visual resources, climate resilience and mitigation, flood and fire control, special designations, transportation, and economics. States must ensure compatibility among developers, conservation, and sustainability.

Regional autonomy similarly does not work for plastic pollution regulation. State boundary lines are politically drawn and regionalized. However, these boundary lines do not restrict migration of plastic pollution, particularly in marine environments where human activity transcends imaginary oceanic boundaries. The transboundary movement of plastics exponentially increases the challenges of implementing law and order over the producers and abusers of the plastic life cycle. What is needed is distributive justice ensuring equal access to information and disclosure, as well as input and decision-making from the affected populations. Achieving this will result in allocating the burdens and benefits equitably among diverse groups.

For example, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a good model. It establishes a duty to consult Indigenous peoples to obtain free, prior, and informed consent before implementing protections that impact Indigenous peoples’ land, territories, and resources. The Declaration purports to establish fair and equitable sharing of benefits that defends political, economic, and cultural interests while managing economic and social relationships between Indigenous peoples and external parties, but it is nonbinding. If it were binding, the Declaration would extend Indigenous cultural rights by respecting the importance of self-determination, deconstructing colonial ideologies, redressing historical exclusion and dispossession, and erasing contrived political boundaries.

International conventions and treaties have adopted laws to prevent, reduce, and control pollution in the marine environment. Notably, international coalition collaborators are conducting considerations through the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, the High Seas Treaty, and the proposed Global Plastic Treaty to end plastic pollution. International regulatory regimes implementing policy and funding in coordination with neighboring communities would best respect all the interrelationships associated with the ocean environment.

Rights of Nature: Ecocentric Governance Approach

An ecocentric approach is essential to protect the rights of marine ecosystems and the role those systems play in biodiversity. Decision-makers must mitigate the threats to social and environmental justice by identifying and measuring the severe consequences of the life cycle of plastic—extraction, production, consumption, reuse, and haphazard disposal. To respect ecosystem preservation and resilience, advocates should enlist the support of attorneys, scientists, and policy makers to effect meaningful legislative changes. As humans, it is our duty to protect the ocean and preserve the quality of life for all current and future generations.

There needs to be an investment in shifting away from the production of plastic to a complete alternative. “Reuse,” “recycle,” and “refill” systems are palliatives concealing the problems. The development of sustainable, biodegradable, or nonplastic substitutes is the solution. Awareness is just the beginning; technological innovation is the goal.

Policy makers should also investigate restorative and compensatory measures by polluters for harms already incurred. The regions most impacted by plastic pollution are frequently communities least likely to have caused the pollution. Industries and commercial vessels, for example, that pollute the ocean are likely to have their pollutants migrate into areas where there is little or no chance of identifying the source, the cause, or the party responsible for cleanup. The 21st century’s environmental law and policy initiatives are dated and unimpactful. Most existing environmental law practices focus only on the duty to clean up a spill or occurrence and impose fines for polluters at the source where the pollution initially occurred and not its final location. Most penal mechanisms are not structured to aid and reimburse the downstream communities ultimately impacted the most by the migration.

Rights of Nature is a progressive movement—an arm of earth law that proposes an integrated approach to the problem of plastic pollution. Rights of Nature seeks to balance the interests of all species, ecosystems, and human needs. It calls for sustainable development, greener economies, and recognition that the Rights of Nature should at least be equivalent to the rights of all humans. This movement holds that nature should exist, flourish, thrive, regenerate, and evolve for the well-being of all living and nonliving beings. The ocean’s right to be free from plastic pollution falls squarely within the Rights of Nature approach. This global marine ecocentric movement of earth law seeks to prioritize marine ecosystems by respecting the ocean’s intrinsic value in a rights-based approach. Earth law’s Ocean Rights movement highlights the interconnection, interdependency, and intersectionality of nature, human health, and justice. Governments tend to penalize and discourage behavior. A Rights of Nature approach could temper the government’s approach by providing incentives for more sustainable solutions through policies to create a clear set of incentives, targets, and primary definitions.

Rights of Nature centers on the entire ecosystem, not solely on human needs. Through equilibrium, it seeks to ensure equity, inclusiveness, and effectiveness in several components. Indigenous people have carried out this practice since time immemorial. They manage their relationship with nature as stewards and rely on marine nature for subsistence, teaching traditional knowledge and cultural practices. Rights of Nature promotes a meaningful balance among Indigenous peoples and nature’s heritage, sociocultural systems, public health, recreation, visual resources, climate resilience, climate mitigation, flood and fire control, special designations, transportation, and economic support.

According to Tim Lovett, of the Hennepin County Bar Association, Rights of Nature law has three main components: “a description of the rights held by natural communities or ecosystems, the creation of standing for the entities and their representatives, and the identification of the remedy available when those rights are infringed.” Tim Lovett, Wild Rice Goes to Court as the Rights of Nature Movement Hits Minnesota, Hennepin Law (Jan. 14, 2022). This theory recognizes inherent and intrinsic values of the environment. It addresses the human custom of anthropocentric leadership rather than acknowledging ecocentrism. Foundationally, it highlights human dependence on nature and informs humans that recognizing nature’s rights is also associated with human rights, as they are interdependent.

Under a Rights of Nature model, people, communities, organizations, and governments have the authority to defend nature and its ecosystem’s rights, alongside individual rights. This model establishes environmental personhood and standing in courts for marine life together with underrepresented abutter rights. Stakeholders perform as legal guardians acting on the oceans’ and nature’s behalf to uphold the rights of the ecosystem in decision-making and disputes. Rights of Nature is also a movement to implement ecomanagement and co-ownership by the stewards of the land and the surrounding space. Globally, other countries and communities have implemented the Rights of Nature approach in various forms of law-making and court rulings, including constitutions, statutes, local laws, guidelines, policies, resolutions, judicial provisions, and treaties, among other legal instruments. In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation to give rights to nature through amending its constitution and awarding standing for nature through legal guardianship. Passed in 2022, Panama enacted a law recognizing Rights of Nature as an initiative to conserve migratory pathways for the biodiversity of sea turtles, sharks, and other keystone species. In Washington State, several municipalities issued resolutions recognizing the Southern Resident orca whale population’s right to exist, thrive, and flourish.

A Resolution for Social Injustice

Social justice issues reevaluated through the Rights of Nature lens will lead to best ocean management practices. If the Rights of Nature approach is implemented and incorporates a mandate to thwart plastic pollution, it will deliver a better quality of economic life to small island developing states, landlocked developing countries, Indigenous peoples and local communities, and coastal and fishing communities, provided the cost to them is not prohibitive, or is borne by the violators posing the threat.

The rights-based approach implements mechanisms that respect, protect, promote, and fulfill human rights, as a necessary component of the Rights of Nature, to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. An ideal human rights–based approach expands beyond centuries-old constitutional rights and reacclimates present and future generations. This holistic approach recognizes how the plastic crisis interrelates with the issue of social and environmental justice. It offsets the impacts of plastic pollution that threatens people’s livelihoods.

Recognizing the rights of species and nature results in population maintenance, growth, and survival for all. Rights of Nature focuses on preventing violations at the outset by declaring activities a violation of nature’s rights based on scientific research–based analyses that apply to specific deleterious practices and scenarios. It emphasizes that humans are part of nature and that there should be equal consideration of human needs when the rights and interests of ecosystems come into conflict with them.

Rights of Nature brings people together across geographies, cultures, and identities. Implementing the Rights of Nature, especially without adherence to boundaries, to end plastic pollution has benefits and challenges.

Like any legislation, control is part of the challenge. Critics fear that the Rights of Nature will continue to adversely harm the ways of life of disadvantaged communities by failing to respect and promote their food supply, security, and health. They question whether the Rights of Nature movement will fail to respect traditional knowledge, religion, and educational practices. There is unease about autonomy, particularly related to plastic pollution near sacred and proprietary lands. There are concerns that the Rights of Nature, like current legislation, will not remediate plastic pollution impacts but will further compromise and challenge particular current social practices causing cultural human rights violations.

Some also criticize the definition of “rights” for nature as being vague and incoherent, providing inappropriate guidance, unconfirming legal behaviors, and being ill-equipped to remedy illegal behaviors. They question how nature can be respected and compensated for inequity and harm caused to humans through anthropocentric practices. They fear that giving nature standing in court will overshadow the rights of more vulnerable and minority humans, including imposing restrictions on property, harvesting, agriculture, fishing, and hunting; ceasing industrial and urban development; and adding expense for technological pollution controls. The Rights of Nature movement tries to overcome this criticism through a model that promotes active maintenance and protection with fair and equitable sharing of benefits while supporting cultural and spiritual ideologies and economies.

The life cycle of plastic and its inevitable industrial-based pollution create an imbalance for the rights of nature and individuals. Plastic pollution is a social and environmental injustice. Industry and governments must reevaluate solutions to reduce the rate of annual land-based plastic leakage into the ocean by addressing the positive and negative economic, social, environmental, and energy consequences that result from allowing, limiting, or prohibiting the use of plastic.

Analyzing these policy considerations with civil society groups, research, science, technology, corporations, private sectors, and funding mechanisms will assist in developing sustainable solutions for healthier indirect and direct ocean, marine species, and human relationships. Ending plastic pollution will aid in preserving the ecological integrity of the ocean and socio-ecological well-being. Humans, one of the most dominant living systems on Earth that both causes and is harmed by plastic pollution, must be accountable in their role as contaminators and their role in problem-solving.