The federal government needs to assume control of waste management in Canada’s Arctic to protect polar bears impacted by faster-melting sea ice due to climate change and feeding on garbage, say researchers.
“I think that’s exactly what it’s going to take,” says Dr. Andrew Derocher, PhD, a University of Alberta biologist who has studied polar bears over the past four decades.
“The communities themselves don’t have the resources and the infrastructure to deal with [the problem],” he said in an interview. “So we need some sort of national policy on Arctic garbage – and how we’re going to move forward with addressing what can be recycled.”
Derocher co-authored a Canadian-American report, published in the journal Oryx, that found an increase in reports of polar bears seeking food waste at community landfills and other waste-management sites across the Arctic. As a result, there are more reports of injuries and deaths to polar bears and humans as they come into conflict near these sites.
There also have been more reported cases of polar bears getting injured by ingesting such items as food-laced tin cans, tinfoil, batteries and ceramics, says the report.
Typically, municipalities and other local governments are responsible for garbage collection and recycling programs in Canada.
Derocher and report co-author Geoff York, senior director of conservation for Polar Bears International, called on the federal government to coordinate Canadian Arctic waste management while collaborating and consulting with affected provinces, territories, communities and Indigenous people.
“[People of the North] are not happy about the waste-management processes that they have,” said Derocher. “That’s very clear. It’s a chronic issue and one that needs attention.”
Affected Canadian areas include: Churchill, Manitoba.; Arviat, an Inuit community in Nunavut; and Moose Factory, a First Nations locale in Ontario.
Arctic areas of the U.S. (specifically Alaska), Greenland, Norway and Russia have also reported more polar bear sightings and animal-human conflicts near waste-management sites.
Climate change making things worse for polar bears
The Oryx report findings are based on ongoing polar bear monitoring, on which Canada and the four other countries collaborate as part of the Agreement on Conservation of Polar Bears signed in 1973, and various other research conducted over decades.
As part of the agreement each country is required to conduct a national polar bear research program. Derocher said researchers do not know whether more polar bears are seeking human food waste, but reports of polar bears doing so have risen in recent years.
All species in the Arctic – including black bears and grizzlies, ravens, bald eagles and gulls – are attracted to garbage, he said. But the problem of polar bears and garbage is exacerbated by climate change, as the loss of sea ice forces the bears onto land more often.
“And if we don’t address [the problem], it’s just going to be a chronic pressure on these ecosystems,” Derocher said. “I’ve been in enough Arctic communities to know what happens on a windy day. Garbage gets picked up and blown around. It’s not pretty. And, it really is an embarrassment that we need to deal with.”
Due to their keen sense of smell, polar bears are attracted to human food waste and view a landfill as a smorgasbord. As a result, the bears are returning to landfills annually as ice on which they usually hunt natural food such as seals melts more quickly. Polar bears are also staying on shore longer – even after their usual feeding areas have refrozen.
Polar bears that rely on human food waste are malnourished and may be more susceptible to disease associated with pollutants, plastics and toxic materials contained in the garbage.
Derocher said climate change has spelled lower survival rates for female, younger and older polar bears.
Some polar bears have been euthanized because they kept returning to landfills after being sedated and relocated. Also, some Canadians and people in Arctic regions governed by other countries have been injured or killed in conflicts with the foraging animals.
The polar bear was listed as a species of Special Concern in 2011, under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). In accordance with SARA, Environment and Climate Change Canada, has prepared a draft national management plan for polar bears.
The plan identifies garbage and solid waste as being a “negligible” threat to polar bears, including in terms of severity of impact, although it notes the problem is continuing.
As sea ice recedes further due to climate change, polar bears are expected to spend more time on land. Meanwhile, human populations and tourism visits are increasing in the Arctic.
The consequence is that communities and individual properties, on which animal bones are discarded following subsistence hunting and where some hunted geese are stored, are at risk of conflict with polar bears.
“This issue could become a more acute problem for more communities, if not addressed on the front end,” York said.
“And it’s something we have control over. This is an actionable item that doesn’t take multiple governments, international entities, getting involved like some of our climate issues do.”
Regional facility proposed to burn waste and generate power
Solid waste poses a big challenge in the Arctic because most of the ground is covered with ice or comprises hard bedrock. Soil is not available, preventing garbage from being buried and making fencing efforts difficult.
Also it is expensive to ship bear-proof garbage containers, bear spray and other deterrents, which contain toxic materials, to the North.
“It’s definitely safer for bears if [garbage is] burnt and gone, and not kept around,” said York.
The Town of Churchill is on the edge of the Arctic Circle in far northern Manitoba and has a large local population of polar bears.
In 2005, Churchill closed its landfill to deter scavenging by polar bears. Since then, the town has stored waste in large discontinued military buildings and shipped it south about every two years.
But the process, which costs $250,000 annually, has become unsustainable for the community of 900 people, said York. Susan Maxson, a sustainability development consultant and project planning instructor at the University of Winnipeg is advising the town on possible solutions.
York said a pilot project proposal calls for Churchill, located on Hudson Bay and connected to many other communities in Manitoba and Nunavut by water, rail and air transport, to be used eventually as a regional waste-management hub.
York said the stored waste could be used as feedstock for Churchill’s existing electric-powered municipal water-heating system. Waste from Churchill and surrounding communities could be incinerated, completely offsetting current electricity costs and reducing the waste-management expenses. Churchill could also generate revenue by charging other communities for the service.
Such a system could be built within a year, said York, who is based in the U.S. but spends lengthy periods each year in Churchill. He noted that the proposed facility would not require new technologies or materials. Construction materials, including a prefabricated metal building, could be shipped by water and rail from southern-based Canadian manufacturers to Churchill.
“So it’s really a seemingly perfect place to test it out and say: Does this work?” said York.