Garbage in the water: How old landfills are harming Inuit communities' marine food chains

The landfill in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, is overfull, but the hamlet can’t open a new landfill until it can pay to decommission the old one, says hamlet Mayor Harry Towtongie. A new environmental report says bad dumps are a problem in all of Canada's Inuit regions.

'We have a real problem with our dump. It's pretty well full and it's getting worse'

The landfill in Iqaluit. The city is working to open a new landfill at a different site. This one is located close to the ocean. (Beth Brown/CBC)

The landfill in Rankin Inlet is overfull, but the hamlet can't open a new one until it can pay to decommission the old one, says Mayor Harry Towtongie. 

Permafrost means waste can't be buried, but the landfill is too close to town and to the airstrip to safely burn garbage, and there is no building for sorting, he says. 

"We have a real problem with our dump," says Towtongie. "It's pretty well full and it's getting worse every year."

But without support to build better infrastructure, he says, it's a problem that keeps getting pushed. 

For the community, this means household waste is getting in the water and introducing toxins into the food people rely on. 

"It's a real environmental disaster up there. What happens is the plastics blow into the water and we can see plastic like 25 miles from town down winds. It's even dangerous for boaters," he says. 

Rankin Inlet Mayor Harry Towtongie says plastics from the landfill blow into the water and are dangerous for animals and boaters. (Facebook)

Inuit communities need better landfills, report

A new environmental report says the same is true for communities across Canada's Inuit regions, where landfills are built close to the ocean. 

In the report titled, Towards a Waste-Free Arctic, the environmental non-profit Oceans North says per capita, the 52 communities across Inuit Nunangat have the same amount of waste to manage as in the South, but infrastructure is inadequate. 

Researcher Susanna Fuller says, that's Canada's job to fix. 

"The onus is on the federal government. It has international commitments on waste reduction, but has not created the pathway to do that in the Arctic," she told CBC News. 

Most communities have no way to separate and manage different kinds of waste, and many rely on open-air burning to get rid of garbage, the report says. There are also limited options for managing hazardous waste, and infrastructure isn't always designed to keep workers safe.   

"It comes down to a commitment to reconcile with the environment and with people in the North, where people are so reliant on the natural environment," she said. "If waste is entering into the marine environment and across the land, then we haven't actually dealt with one of the threats," said Fuller.

She said communities need support to build better infrastructure and keep their food supply from being damaged. 

"The other thing is making sure that country food stays uncontaminated by plastic, and that those animals stay healthy so that people can eat from the land rather than always from the grocery store," she said. 

A fire at the Rankin Inlet dump in 2014. Many communities rely on burning to reduce garbage, but Mayor Harry Towtongie says the landfill is too close to town to have open fires. (Juanita Taylor/CBC)

Managing waste is part of reconciliation, says ITK

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed writes a forward to the report, in which he says landfills and wastewater lagoons are not set up to safely handle the toxins they hold, and now climate change and coastal erosion are making things worse.

For example, in Iqaluit, the current landfill (which is waiting to be decommissioned), is around 240 metres from the ocean. In Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, the landfill is around 260 metres from water. In Nain, Nunatsiavut, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the landfill is only 70 metres from water. 

"We currently have little to no direct decision-making involvement in the recycling, reduction or diversion of the paper, cardboard, plastics, hazardous materials and e-waste filling our landfills, threatening our freshwater supplies and locally harvested foods, and directly affecting our local air quality," Obed says. 

He says supporting waste management is part of reconciliation with Inuit. 

A landfill in Postville, Nunatsiavut, in Newfoundland and Labrador. An environmental report on waste management in the Arctic says all of Canada's Inuit communities are struggling with poor infrastructure for dealing with garbage. (Submitted by Sid Pain Oceans North)

Communities are already taking action, says Obed. Solar panels have gone up in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, there's a plastic bag ban in Nain, and a men's group in Inukjuak in northern Quebec is salvaging and repairing equipment. 

In Nunavut, Arviat has a sustainable harvesting program for youth, and Cambridge Bay is looking to convert household waste into heat. 

In Rankin Inlet, Towtongie says the community works with the mining company Agnico Eagle to send hazardous waste south each summer on the sealift, like what is done with old batteries, propane tanks and used oil. 

The report says switching from liquid laundry detergent in large and heavy plastic containers to easily-shipped laundry strips that are stored in cardboard could save households hundreds of dollars each year. 

But these efforts are just a start, and change still needs to come from the political level as well, says the report. 

"For decades, colonial government policies have encouraged the growth of static, southern-style communities while failing to create or fund the infrastructure necessary to support them," it says. "An undue burden should not be placed on Inuit communities and ... achieving a waste-free Arctic will require national and international co-operation."

Because most communities in Inuit Nunangat are coastal, their landfills are close to the ocean. (Oceans North)