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

This story was originally published on Canada's National Observer. It is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Residents of Nunavut's capital, Iqaluit, have been without water for a week. This has created a problem for many northern communities. It is almost impossible to dispose of garbage safely.

Nearly 750,000 plastic water bottles have been flooding the city since city staff discovered fuel in Iqaluit’s water supply last week. Although a group of businesses has teamed up to return the bottles, the majority of the city's garbage never makes it south.

Instead, all things, from broken toys to old cars, remain in the North. They clog up the Iqaluit dump, which then causes harm to the environment, human health, and food. The city is not the only one. Many northern communities cannot afford to dispose of their waste safely. This problem is a result of poor funding and colonization's legacy.

Many of these communities don't have proper recycling facilities, according to Susanna Fuller (Vice President of Operations and Projects for Oceans North), an environmental organization that published earlier this year a pioneering report on Arctic Canada's waste. All empty planes, ships and boats [making deliveries to North] should be full returning [south].

This is only one part of the problem. The federal government made it mandatory for Inuit and other Indigenous people to move into permanent communities of southern design during the middle of the 20th century. These communities grew rapidly as governments invested in infrastructure such as waterworks and airports. Residents also rely on food and materials from southern Canada.

This growth was accompanied by waste. Plastic packaging, parts of cars, and many other types of debris accumulated. It was expensive for municipal governments and economically uneconomic for businesses to ship them back to safe disposal and recycling facilities in southern Canada.

Most communities in northern Canada use low-tech landfills for their garbage. Others resort to open-air lagoons or settling ponds to dispose off municipal wastewater. The Oceans North report notes that Arctic Canada does not have an incinerator and some communities rely on open-air burning.

Fuller states that most landfills are a disaster.

We have been facing long-term, growing, and chronic infrastructure gaps in our communities, unlike most southern Canadians. Natan Obed is president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an organization representing Inuit in Canada. Our current involvement in recycling, reduction, diversion, or disposal of hazardous materials, paper, cardboard, plastics and e-waste that are filling our landfills is minimal to non-existent. This directly impacts our air quality and threatens our freshwater supplies.

According to the International Pollutant Elimination Network (a global network of environmental organisations), open-air landfills and incineration can produce dozens of toxic chemicals that can easily leach into the environment and animals and fish living nearby. ITK's July report found that Inuit consume 25% to 50% of their protein from locally-harvested wild foods, such as wild meat, berries, and fish. Culturally, harvesting and hunting are important. Nearly 85 percent of Inuit age 15 or older hunt, trap or capture.