Photo: Meril Darees / Polar Bears International

Polar Bears and Plastics

By Kieran Mulvaney, Guest Contributor



11 Apr 2024

The mass production of plastics is less than a century old, but in that time plastic pollution has grown into one of the most pernicious environmental problems affecting the planet. The amount of plastic being created each year has exploded from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to more than 350 million tons today and is still rising. Some estimates calculate that fully 50 percent of those plastics are single-use items such as shopping bags that are utilized and then discarded, where they find their way into landfills, rivers, lakes and seas — and the Arctic.

Even polar bears are not immune from plastic pollution. Although there have been relatively few studies of plastics and polar bears, a paper published last year in the journal Ursus concluded that, at least in parts of their range, it is a problem that needs to be taken seriously.

Plastic ingestion

A team of researchers, led by Raphaela Stimmelmayr of Alaska’s North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, analyzed the stomach contents of 42 polar bears that had been killed by subsistence hunters in the southern Beaufort Sea between 2010 and 2020. The researchers found that more than 28 percent of the bears had plastic in their stomachs. That plastic was often in the form of bags, suggesting that discarded food had frozen to the bags in which they had been thrown out, causing bears that scavenged for food in dumps to consume both.

More than half of the bears that were found with plastics in their stomach also had acute gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining. Scientists are concerned that, given polar bears’ ability to consume up to 20 percent of their body weight in one sitting, plastics could easily cause painful and debilitating blockages between their stomachs and intestines. Bears with stomachs full of plastic are likely to be both hungry and ill-tempered. Indeed, Stimmelmayr and colleagues note in their paper that an aggressive polar bear in the Alaska community of Kaktovik in February 2022 was a subadult whose stomach was stuffed with plastics and other waste.

Photo: Madison Stevens / Polar Bears International

Reducing plastic waste

The most effective way to reduce the amount of plastic pollution entering polar bears’ stomachs is to reduce the amount of plastic reaching the Arctic in the first place — but, notes Geoff York, Polar Bears International’s senior director of research and policy, that’s easier said than done.

“So many things come in plastics,” he says. “They’re thinner, lighter, cheaper to ship, cheaper to buy than glass or aluminum.” While consumers in many parts of the world can pressure distributors and retailers to use alternatives to plastic packaging whenever possible, communities in the North generally have just one major outlet for consumer purchases and less influence over their practices. That places greater weight on those communities to address plastic pollution themselves. But resources are often scarce in the North, with the likes of housing and health care understandably prioritized over waste management.

But, given that plastic waste is often discarded along with food scraps, and that food is an attractant to polar bears, it is demonstrably in the best interest of communities to at least reduce or eliminate open-air dumps and, whenever possible, bear-proof their trash containers.

Photo: Erinn Hermsen / Polar Bears International

Churchill and Svalbard: Models for other Arctic communities

That’s what Churchill, Manitoba, known for its annual gathering of polar bears, is doing. It closed its open-air dump in 2005 to remove a major incentive for bears to come into town, and it is notable that cases of “problem” bears in town have decreased sharply in the years since. Presently, waste is stored in an old military building outside of town for two to three years before being sent to an enclosed landfill. But, says York, the town is now looking at other options, including the development of a high-heat incineration process that could also be used to warm the town’s water pipes and protect them against frost.

In addition, he notes, Churchill is “working on protecting garbage and potential food from bears residentially and commercially, trying to ensure for example that households have places that they can store their waste, that are essentially bear resistant.”

The gold standard in how northern communities can address the issue of plastic pollution specifically and waste management more generally is seen in the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.

In addition to the waste generated onshore, ocean currents deposit plastic from fishing vessels and other ships along the Svalbard coastline and deep into its fjords. That’s a problem that both locals and tourist companies have responded to by organizing clean up crews, explains Christian Zoelly, Polar Bears International's director of field operations and logistics, who lives in the capital of Longyearbyen. And for Svalbard residents, he explains, “it’s very, very normal to split the garbage and recycle.” The town boasts multiple, bear-proof containers for general trash, cardboard, plastics, and other recyclables, and a new indoor waste management facility enables personal and commercial customers to sort all their trash and recycling easily and safely.

All the sorted trash is loaded onto a barge and returned to Norway for disposal, ensuring that plastic and other wastes are kept well away from polar bears and the rest of Svalbard’s wildlife. And by keeping trash in bear-proof containers, Svalbard residents remove a major reason for polar bears to want to wander into town.

That’s a win for polar bears, and for people.

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer who has written extensively about polar bears and the Arctic for publications including National Geographic, The Guardian, and The Washington Post. A native of Bristol, England, he lives in Bristol, Vermont.

Editor's note: The Churchill waste management facility burned to the ground overnight on April 10, as this article was being prepared for publication. Our thoughts are with the people of Churchill as they seek to recover from this tragedy.