A Water Crisis Reveals You Can’t Recycle in the Arctic

This story is original appeared in National Observer of Canada and part of Climate Table collaboration.

One week water crisis leaving residents in NunavutThe capital city of Iqaluit without drinking water also reveals a chronic problem for many northern communities: It is almost impossible to safely dispose of garbage.

Nearly 750,000 plastic Water bottles have flooded the city in recent days after city staff last week found fuel in Iqaluit’s water supply. While a coalition of businesses has since collaborated to return empty bottles, most of the town’s garbage will no longer return to the south.

However, everything from old cars to broken toys remain in the North, clogging the Iqaluit garbage dump and damaging human health, food, and the environment. The city is also not unique. Most northern communities are unable to safely dispose of their waste — a problem that observers say is the result of insufficient funding and the legacy of colonization.

“Most communities don’t have the facilities to do proper plastic recycling,” said Susanna Fuller, vice president of operations and projects for Oceans North, an environmental organization that earlier this year published in a groundbreaking report examining waste in Arctic Canada. “All empty planes and empty ships [making deliveries to the North] should be filled back [south]. ”

That’s just part of the problem. In the mid-20th century, the federal government forced Inuit and other Indigenous peoples of northern Canada to settle in permanent, southern-style communities. These towns grew rapidly as governments invested in public infrastructure such as airports and water, and residents became increasingly dependent on food and materials imported from southern Canada.

Along with this growth came out garbage: Plastic packages, auto parts, and countless other types of detritus that accumulated. Sending them back to recycling and safe disposal facilities in southern Canada — the best environmental option — is largely uneconomical for companies and very expensive for most municipal governments.

As a result, most communities in northern Canada send their waste to low-tech landfills, and many use open-air lagoons and settling ponds to dispose of municipal waste. Nor does any community in Arctic Canada have an incinerator, leaving some to rely on the environmentally toxic habit of burning outside the air, the North Oceans report says.

“Most landfills are a disaster,” Fuller said.

“Unlike most southern Canadians, we have faced severe, large, and growing gaps in municipal infrastructure for decades,” wrote Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), an organization that represents the Inuit in Canada, in a forward report. “We now have little or no direct involvement in making the decision to recycle, reduce, or diversion the paper, cardboard, plastic, hazardous materials, and e-waste that fill our landfills, threaten our fresh water supplies and local food crops, and directly affect our air quality. ”

Open-air landfills and incineration of wastes can generate many harmful chemicals that can easily trickle into the surrounding environment and animals or fish living nearby, according to a June report. report through the International Pollutant Elimination Network, a global network of environmental organizations. A July report by ITK found that locally harvested wild foods such as fish, berry, or wild meat provide a quarter to half of the Inuit’s protein needs. Harvesting and hunting are also culturally important — nearly 85 percent of Inuit 15 years of age or older hunt or trap — and can provide a cheaper alternative to expensive imported foods.

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