Scientists, Alaska Native leaders say the Arctic faces a growing crisis from plastic waste

a walrus
A walrus is seen in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea in June of 2010. Research by a University of Alaska Fairbanks student found microplastics, mostly tiny fibers, were lodged in muscle tissue, blubber and livers of walruses harvested by hunters from St. Lawrence Island and Wainwright. (Sarah Sonsthagen/U.S. Geological Survey)

Vi Waghiyi grew up in the village of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, where meat from walrus, seal and bowhead whale sustained her family through long winters. 

“My people continue to live off the land and ocean like we have for millenia,” Waghiyi said. “Our elders call the Bering Sea our farm.”

Today, as an elder herself, Waghiyi wants her grandson to have access to the same traditional foods. But food security in the Arctic is increasingly threatened.

The burning of fossil fuels is heating the region four times faster than anywhere else on the planet. Warming waters are disrupting the food chain, and melting sea ice is erasing animal habitat and making hunting more dangerous.

“And we are some of the most highly contaminated people on the planet because of our reliance on our subsistence foods,” Waghiyi said.

Because plastic waste piling up across the planet is making its way up to the Arctic. Plastics contain toxins that have been linked to long-term health problems like cancer, hormone disruption and damage to the heart, liver and kidney, which threaten Alaska Native communities. That’s according to a new report from Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the International Pollutants Elimination Network. 

Waghiyi, who is the director of environmental health and justice for Alaska Community Action on Toxics, is a co-author on the report, along with other scientists and Alaska Native leaders who are calling for an end to new plastic production worldwide. They’ll represent Alaska’s Arctic communities at a meeting of the United Nations later this month. 

Pamela Miller, a long-time Alaska scientist who works with both organization, is also a co-author. She said strong currents in the ocean and the atmosphere naturally move from lower latitudes to the poles, carrying plastic and other pollutants along with them. 

“We now know that there are microplastics in fish, in walrus, in ring seal, bearded seal, spotted seal, and many different whale species,” Miller said. “These are the animals that have been relied on for centuries for sustenance.”

The accumulation of plastics in the Arctic is made worse by climate change.

“We also know that with climate warming happening so rapidly that the highest concentrations of microplastics are found in those areas where there’s the most rapid melting of sea ice,” Miller said.

The melting of sea ice, permafrost and glaciers also release plastics and chemicals that have long been bound in ice. 

In 2022, the United Nations set out to write a treaty on how to deal with growing plastic waste. They’ve held several meetings to hash out the terms, including one happening later this month in Ottawa, Canada. There, the authors of the new report will join representatives from more than 170 other countries. 

Miller says there’s only one real solution to the plastics problem. 

“The first thing is to curb the production of chemicals and plastics,” she said. “Since they’re reliant on fossil fuel production, that also means curbing fossil fuel production.”

But not everyone agrees with her. 

Most plastic is created with chemicals derived from fossil fuels. And as demand for oil and gas in transportation or home heating drops with the switch to cleaner energy, many in the fossil fuel industry see plastics as a way to support their future business.

At a treaty meeting last fall, representatives from oil and gas producing companies and countries pushed for recycling and cleanup solutions instead — despite years of research suggesting that only a small fraction of recycled plastic gets transformed into new items.

Waghiyi says she hopes that Arctic Indigenous communities are able to push back against those industry interests. 

“Our people have done all we could to make sure our land, airs and waters are protected,” Waghiyi said. “These multinational corporations do not take human health into account.”

She says she’s headed to Ottawa to fight to protect the health and food of her grandson. 

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