Workshop participants in Unalaska, AK
Workshop participants in Unalaska, AK
© Nadine Kochuten / Aleut International Association

Waste management in remote Arctic communities: Unique challenges and emerging solutions

Solid waste management practices in small, remote Arctic communities can pose significant human health, environmental and economic concerns. Communities often face challenges such as geographic remoteness, limited infrastructure and resources, harsh weather and changing climate conditions, among other things.

This has led to countless uncontrolled open solid waste dumpsites across the Arctic. These pose a wide range of hazards to local communities including co-mingling of sewage wastes, dumping of prohibited waste, and uncontrolled burning and seepage into water bodies. Often lacking an operator, systematized collection and access to cover materials, waste management is further hampered by coastal flooding, erosion and thawing permafrost, limiting access and control of sites.

Indigenous communities can face health and environmental impacts from these open dumpsites. There is a deep connection to environmental stewardship, and a subsistence diet among Indigenous communities, and solid waste can jeopardize the safety and security of their cultures and foods.

Two Arctic Council Working Groups – the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) and Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP) – have initiated a number of projects to address this issue over the last decade.

Sign for local communities in their language, Unangam Tunuu
© Nadine Kochuten / Aleut International Association

A timeline of solid waste management activities in the Arctic Council

In 2016, the ACAP workshop, “Sharing Approaches on Community Solid and Hazardous Management Within Arctic Indigenous Communities” (Nome, Alaska 2016), identified community priorities, best practices, and the need for a clearing house of solid waste information. Then in 2018, SDWG initiated a desk study, “Best Waste Management Practices for Small and Remote Arctic Communities”, which provided an overview of best waste management practices from Alaska, Arctic Canada and Finland, as well as recommendations on possible actions.

From the start, Indigenous Peoples’ organizations have been the driving force behind solid waste initiatives under the Arctic Council.

From 2018-2021, inventory and clean-up efforts in Sámi communities on the Kola Peninsula were planned and carried out under ACAP’s Kola Waste project by the Public Organization for Promotion of Legal Education and Preservation of the Cultural Heritage of the Sámi of the Murmansk Region (OOSMO) in partnership with the Saami Council, and supported by the Indigenous Peoples’ Contaminant Action Program (IPCAP) Expert Group under ACAP.

The project comprised an inventory and classification of illegal waste dumps in and around thirty communities followed by a first clean-up of most of the sites, which could be handled without special treatment or licenses. The project was conducted in close cooperation between the Sámi communities and the local and regional environmental authorities.

Workshop participants in Unalaska, AK learning how to prepare and palletize recycling to be shipped out of the community.
© Nadine Kochuten / Aleut International Association

The Solid Waste Management in Remote Arctic Communities Project

As the next step to help understand and address different concerns related to solid waste management in remote Arctic communities, ACAP and SDWG are collaborating on a project to provide information, training, tools and other resources to improve planning and implementation of solid waste management practices in these communities. The project is co-led by the Aleut International Association (AIA), Saami Council and several Arctic States.

The project leads are committed to building on previous work to scale up solid waste management activities that assist, not only the pilot communities, but also other Arctic communities that face similar challenges. The project also builds on previous Arctic Council work on marine litter and plastics carried out by the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) and Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme Working Groups.

As part of a pre-project scoping effort in the U.S., AIA aimed to evaluate small, remote Arctic communities’ solid waste management practices, challenges, and new solutions. The assessment method involved a voluntary survey of small Arctic communities (fewer than 1,500 inhabitants), which are either off the road system for at least three months of the year, or, which, due to their location, encounter logistical or affordability obstacles in accessing regional or national solid waste support services and facilities.

The results indicated a top five of challenges related to solid waste management:

  • the need for stronger or enhanced regulations;
  • the need to replace or improve the landfill;
  • the lack of regional facilities to support the community with its waste management;
  • insufficient resources to maintain the landfill and equipment they do have; and
  • the need for additional staff to operate the landfill.

Survey respondents ranked the top five most helpful actions to address solid waste challenges their community faces as:

  • in-person training;
  • educational materials for residents;
  • targeted public service messages via radio and social media;
  • culturally appropriate approaches for educating community members;
  • and training focused on landfill operations.

The assessment identified human drivers as crucial in ensuring effective solid waste management. Individuals or groups deeply committed to improving solid waste management and motivating the community can make a difference even when resources are scarce. This conclusion was also proven by the Kola Waste project, which became possible due to the aspirational leadership of several community members. Community support and compliance are also important drivers for success.

Another scoping assessment made for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by the Battelle Memorial Institute provides a circumpolar overview of solid waste management in remote Arctic communities. It describes challenges, opportunities and some of the best practices, as well as suggests some ideas for future pilot projects that could serve as next step to improving solid waste management in the Arctic. The findings were derived from a literature review, environmental scan of online materials, and key informant interviews with experts working on solid waste management in the Arctic.

The report covers a variety of different waste types that appear in the Arctic region. Some of these waste types are common around the globe (e.g., marine debris and plastic pollution) and will require solutions at both local and global levels to make an impact. Some other types of waste are found elsewhere but are of particular concern in the Arctic due to context-specific limitations (e.g., construction and demolition waste).

Sign for local communities in their language, Unangam Tunuu
© Nadine Kochuten / Aleut International Association
Sign for local communities in their language, Unangam Tunuu
© Nadine Kochuten / Aleut International Association

On to the pilot phase

Both assessments show that solid waste management in the Arctic poses unique challenges, especially for small, remote, and Indigenous communities. While every country, region, and community will need customized solutions, lessons learned could be shared across countries where appropriate. So, one of the important deliverables of this project is a tool kit on solid waste management compiled by AIA.

Currently, the project leads are working to identify pilot communities in Alaska, Arctic Canada and Sápmi. They are looking for pilot solid waste improvement projects that will have a replicable component to serve as a model for lessons learned for other remote communities in the Arctic.

The pilot phase of the project will benefit from greater degrees of collaboration between local, regional, national, and international parties. Another important part of the project will be an in-person workshop, which will convene participants of different community-based pilot projects for information sharing and building relationships with their counterparts. A strong youth component will be important to share knowledge and generate solutions.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to effective waste management in the Arctic, highlighting the importance of community-driven projects that address their specific issues and needs. However, many communities around the circumpolar north experience similar conditions such as remoteness, limited infrastructure and harsh weather. By focusing on several pilot communities across regions, best practices can be scaled up and shared to benefit many other communities around the Arctic.