Plastic pollution talks end & Arctic peoples return home to a ‘sink’ of plastic

  • In the wake of the plastics treaty talks in Ottawa, a new report highlights the severe impacts of plastics and petrochemicals on Arctic Indigenous communities.
  • Indigenous delegates were left with bittersweet feelings that negotiations did not lead to commitments to cut plastic production, while oil companies and producing countries say more recycling is the answer.
  • The Arctic is a hemispheric sink collecting plastic pollution from all corners of the world and is melting four times faster than the rest of the world.
  • Indigenous communities in Alaska are among those who bear the brunt of climate change and plastic pollution, with studies finding toxic chemicals in peoples’ blood, breast milk and placentas, and melting ice impacting hunting and food security.

Global plastic pollution talks in Ottawa came to a close April 30, and with them a group of Indigenous leaders from the Arctic are on their way home. But the mood remains bittersweet for the delegation that must return to a region that has become a “sink” collecting plastic pollution that arrives from around the world.

“Oil-producing countries and industries have wielded undue influence,” says Pamela Miller, executive director and senior scientist at Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) and co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). “We must ensure that the [next round of talks in November] is free of conflict of interest.”

Though Indigenous delegates say there was significant progress in negotiations on a global treaty to curb plastics pollution by developing language to address harmful plastics chemicals, they were disappointed to see no commitments for cutting plastic production. They see high production and consumption of plastic as the root of the pollution problem.

With the Arctic warming nearly four times faster than the rest of the world, communities in the Arctic are among the world’s most impacted by climate change and plastic pollution, according to a report published by ACAT and IPEN. Plastic pollution and the oil exploitation process to produce these petrochemicals are threatening Indigenous people’s health, food, livelihood, lands and human rights, say the authors. Climate change, they tell Mongabay, is exacerbating all these impacts.

“This is a crisis,” Miller says. “And without curbing fossil fuel extraction and plastics production, the Arctic will continue to suffer all of these converging harms.”

More than 13 million people from more than 40 ethnic groups inhabit the Circumpolar North region and are facing tangible risks and threats from climate change, petrochemicals and plastics that are increasing at an alarming rate with the rise in production.

Globally, only 9% of plastic gets recycled while the annual plastic production has more than doubled in 20 years to 460 million tons, according to the OECD. Plastic contribution to global warming could more than double by 2060, having accounted for 3.4% of global emissions in 2019.

Oil extraction is tied to a long history of spills impacting Arctic peoples’ lands, water and natural resources, which has turned some Indigenous peoples against the industry or created a tumultuous relationship. In the last decades, oil and gas industry operations in Cook Inlet and the North Slope in Alaska led to thousands of spills and other releases of hazardous substances.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation database documented 2,259 crude oil spills, 790 drilling mud spills and 99 releases of natural gas and methane since 1995.

A study shows that the Yupik people from Sivuqaq in the Arctic have 4-10 times higher concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) in their blood than the average person in the lower 48 states. PCBs are cancer-causing chemical compounds and one of the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) banned by the Stockholm Convention because of their hazardous threat to human health and ecosystems.

As negotiations came to a close in Ottawa, community people from Sivuqaq urged that the voices of Arctic communities be at the forefront for shaping future negotiations for the best interests of community and planetary health. They underlined the importance of phasing out and replacing hazardous chemicals found in some plastics.

“Our wombs are our child’s first environment, and there is a higher possibility that a mother can pass on these exposures to her child in the uterus,” says Vi Pangunnaaq Waghiyi, a Yupik community leader and member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council from Sivuqaq.

“And to live in an environment surrounded by petrochemicals, oil wells that are in close proximity to our homes, hunting and food gathering locations is such an environmental violence.”

More and more studies are coming across evidence of microplastics, plastic debris less than 5 millimeters (0.2 inches), found throughout the world’s living environment, from tap water to ocean plankton, air and food.

At the plastic treaty talks, oil companies and countries whose economies rely on fossil fuel and petrochemical industries opposed production cuts and emphasized innovative recycling instead.

In a recent commentary, Jim Fitterling, chair and CEO of Dow Inc., the world’s third-largest plastics producer, emphasized the importance of plastics to the modern world in medical products, preserving food and renewable technologies. In contrast to the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, a group of 66 countries that call for limiting plastic consumption and production, Fitterling proposed other measures.

“We must design more high-performance plastics that use fewer raw materials while maximizing durability, reusability and recyclability. Countries can help by promoting smarter design standards and setting recycled content requirements so that waste can be more easily sorted, recycled and put back into use,” he said.

Plastic, plastic everywhere

The Arctic is a “hemispheric sink” where plastics and petrochemicals from the South accumulate, leaving Indigenous communities to bear the brunt of pollution that did not come from their lands.

The ecological impact of plastics is exacerbated by the chemicals most of which are linked to health impacts on humans with increased cancer risks and endocrine disruptions. There are more than 16,000 plastic chemicals, with 25% of these classified as hazardous and 66% not assessed for safety, according to the “State of the Science on Plastic Chemicals 2024” report. It concludes that no plastic chemical can be classified as safe. Other studies show the presence of microplastics in the human blood, human breast milk and human placentas.

With such staggering findings in the report and new research critical of bioplastics, Miller says she believes that robust negotiations and policies are required to cut down on plastic production rather than focusing talks on recycling. Opponents against recycling as the sole solution without reducing production say not all petrochemicals can be recycled, there is a lack of sufficient recycling infrastructure and recycling doesn’t address persistent leakage into the environment.

One study found that chemical recycling, the process of converting polymeric waste by changing its chemical structure and turning it back into substances that can be used as raw materials, creates large amounts of toxic waste and emissions that can cause significant risks to human health.

“We [were there] to make sure that governments are held accountable, industries are not allowed to control the treaty and their vested interest does not control the negotiations,” Vi Pangunnaaq Waghiyi tells Mongabay.

Emphasizing clean, renewable energy and a regenerative economy, the IPEN report calls on ending government subsidies to the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries in the wake of the Willow Project, one of the largest proposed oil and gas projects on federal lands in the United States. The Biden administration approved it in March 2023 due to rising energy costs, despite the president’s campaign promises to ban new oil and gas leases.

This faced public outcry in impacted Indigenous communities, including the Arctic community of Nuiqsut, which is located about 58 km (36 miles) from the project location. It is estimated the project will produce 629 million barrels (more than 100 billion liters or 26.4 billion gallons) of oil over a 30-year period, the combustion of which would release the equivalent of 277 million tons of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere.

“The Biden administration is moving forward with a massive oil and gas project that is a climate disaster waiting to happen while refusing to listen to the voices of my constituents and community, who will bear the burden of this project with our health and our livelihoods,” Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, Iñupiaq scholar and leader from the Native village of Nuiqsut, says in the report.

Indigenous leaders from Nuiqsut and Sivuqaq say they are witnessing one of the worst impacts on food security and health after studies found microplastics in Arctic krill, whales, seals and walruses that the communities have long depended on. Although contaminated with microplastics, communities lack the option to give up on their traditional foods which are more impacted by warming temperatures and biodiversity loss. POPs and plastics continue to contaminate seawater and kill marine species taking a heavy toll on food security. The Arctic krill plays a significant role in the food chain, as many Arctic mammals depend on them for food.

Remote communities in the Arctic face sky-high grocery costs, making the option to rely completely on stores for protein and nutrition out of reach. This also diminishes their connection to where their food comes from, their lands and their traditional practices.

Communities say climate change and continued oil extraction, which creates petrochemicals, just add another layer to their woes in the Arctic facing rapidly melting ice.

Traditional diets like marine mammals, including bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), walrus, seal, fish and fowl — important factors in Indigenous people’s health and nutrition — are challenged by melting ice, which served as the communities’ hunting grounds.

Waghiyi recounts the days when her family and community members had an abundance of food during long winters; now, they end up foraging food for hours.

“These are burdens we didn’t create and we are seeing these drastic impacts on our food security,” she tells Mongabay.

“Our freezers are empty. There are no seals and walruses. We have to go out further. It’s more dangerous that our men have to risk their lives to go many miles out just to put food on the table.”

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