IPEN International Pollutants Elimination Network

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

Arctic bird in background with Mongabay logo

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.”

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.”

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.”

“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.

“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.

Read the full story from Mongabay.