23. The Gender-Dimension of Plastics in the Arctic

The Gender-Dimension of Plastics in the Arctic

Convenors: Tahnee Prior & Sara Seck, Marine & Environmental Law Institute, Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University

Contact: tahnee.prior (at) gmail.com

Seminar room: Tellus Chill (Parallel sessions 1 & 2)

Format: Hybrid

The global production and consumption of plastics has grown exponentially over the last decades, contributing to an environmental crisis with significant costs to human and ecological health. Furthermore, the entirety of the plastic cycle – from the extraction of fossil fuels, to production, transportation, waste mismanagement and disposal – has significant impacts on human rights due to the release of toxic substances into the environment. These human impacts are differentially experienced, including intersectional gendered effects. In an Arctic context, plastics are increasingly found on beaches, in surface and subsurface water, snow, sea ice, and the ocean seafloor. In fact, the Arctic Ocean now has one of the highest densities of surface micro-particles in the world. Nevertheless, little is known about the socio-economic impacts, including the gendered dimension, of plastic pollution in the Arctic to date. This open academic workshop seeks to bring together researchers, activists, and artists for a conversation on the theme of gender and plastic in the Arctic, and to explore potential avenues for collaboration at this nexus, moving forward. This open workshop is especially timely given that plastic pollution and gender equality were key issue areas under Iceland’s Arctic Council Chairmanship (2019-2021), and the Reykjavik Declaration, signed at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in May 2021, welcomed and approved the Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in the Arctic, in addition welcoming the first-ever Pan-Arctic Report on Gender Equality in the Arctic and encouraging the mainstreaming of gender-based analysis in the work of the Arctic Council.


Sara Seck & Tahnee Prior

Joni Seager

Anna Soer

Helene Svendsen

Carol Devine


Joni Seager, Bentley University, jseager@bentley.edu

The Petro-Bromance that drives the plastics agenda

Gender and plastics research tends to focus on gender-differentiated impacts of exposure to plastics and its chemical components. In my emerging research agenda, I push backwards from the presence of plastics to the actor-agency structures that create them in the first place. The fossil fuel industry that is so eager to exploit ever more resources in the Arctic represents a highly-skewed gender-skewed industrial configuration. From the drill platform to the boardroom, the direct material benefits of the fossil fuel industry flow to men. Male capture of the astounding profits of the extraction, production and sale of fossil fuels is hegemonic. Many analysts point out that vested economic interests block the transition away from fossil fuels. I agree. And I argue that those transition-blocking vested interests are distinctly and specifically gendered.

But it’s not just masculinized economic benefit that propels the fossil fuel industry. As other research* reveals, fossil fuels have historically played a pivotal role in socially constructing male privilege. Industrial-nostalgic masculinity may drive much of the current stubborn attachment to fossil fuels. Part of my effort is to map the mutual constitution of certain social configurations of masculinity and fossil fuels. These configurations will manifest differently in different places and cultures. I don’t know enough about how the romanticized masculinisms of fossil fuels might manifest across Arctic settings. But my work might make an analytical contribution by mapping some baseline configurations.

Exploring the instrumentality of the interlocking interests of male privilege and power and fossil fuels is part of an urgent feminist environmental agenda. I argue that putting masculinism on the table as a driver of environmental change urgently demands policy attention and intervention – and yet in most ‘official’ policy circles this is either strenuously resisted or passively ignored, responses that may in themselves reflect the male-privileging gender skew in environmental research and in policymaking circles.

* For example, Cara Daggett: petro-masculinity; Paul Pule & Martin Hultman: industrial-breadwinner masculinities; Anshelm & Hultman: the masculinity of industrial modernity; Gabriela Valdivia: social metabolics of oil

Sara L Seck, Yogis & Keddy Chair in Human Rights Law, Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University Sara.Seck@dal.ca

A Human Rights-based Approach to the Plastics Life Cycle in the Arctic: Opportunities and Challenges for Feminist Matterings

The current fossil-fuel-based plastics life cycle negatively impacts human rights at every stage, from extraction and production to transportation, use, waste management, and disposal. While much attention to date has focused on the challenges facing countries in the East Asian Seas, attention is now turning to other parts of the world including the Arctic. There is an urgent need to move towards circularity in the plastics value chain, and to eliminate or at least minimize the interconnected human rights and environmental harms of the current plastics model. Drawing upon research and trainings developed by a team of researchers at Dalhousie University led by the author with funding from the United Nations Environment Programme’s SEA Circular initiative of the Coordinating Body of the East Asian Seas (COBSEA), this presentation will explore the opportunities and challenges of integrating a human rights-based approach into the transition to plastics value chain circularity for meaningful attention to Indigenous rights and gender justice in the Arctic. Human rights instruments that will inform the presentation include: the three dimensions of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment (substantive, procedural, and equity), recently recognized in resolutions of the UN General Assembly (2022) and UN Human Rights Council (2021) and clarified in the work of UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteurs including in relation to plastics; the rights of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous women under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP); and the three pillars (protect, respect, remedy) of the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Tahnee Prior, Killam Postdoctoral fellow, Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University, tahnee.prior@dal.ca

Legalizing Global Plastics Governance: Potential Implications for Gender Equality in the Arctic

Over the past decade, a patchwork of initiatives – such as the Basel Convention, the UN World Tourism Organisation Global Tourism Plastics Initiative, and the Global Plastic Action Partnership –have underpinned the governance of plastics globally, including in the Arctic. However, there is an increasing push for the greater legalization of global plastics governance; including 10 formal proposals for possible global legal instruments – in the form of a multilateral environmental agreement – to address plastic pollution (CIEL 2022).

Negotiations for such an instrument began at the UN Environment Assembly 5.2. through the proposed establishment of an intergovernmental negotiating committee to draft a binding instrument. The outcome of these negotiations – in terms of structure, mandate, scope, and the incorporation of a human rights based approach – is crucial given recent evidence suggesting that the safe operating space of the planetary boundary for novel entities (NEs) like plastics -- which are novel in geological terms and can have large-scale impacts that threaten the integrity of Earth System processes -- is being exceeded as the annual production and release of NEs increases at a pace that surpasses the global capacity to assess and monitor them (Persson et al. 2021).

In this article I will bring together literature on planetary boundaries, earth systems governance and law, justice and allocation to explore current and proposed approaches for governing global plastic pollution. Broadly, I will focus on whether the ontological underpinning of the proposed shifts toward the legalization of global plastics governance matches onto the complexity of the problem at hand. Specifically, I examine the potential for the proposed approaches to integrate northern, Indigenous and/or gender-diverse perspectives.

Anna Soer, PhD student, University of Ottawa School of Political Studies, Canada, Asoer028@uottawa.ca

Plastic Policymaking and Policy Implementation in Nunavut: Bringing the Voices of Inuit Women In

Much scientific research has been conducted in Canadian Arctic waters to determine the levels of plastic presence and consumption by local wildlife. This consumption has alerted hunters especially as hunting is foundational to community life in Nunavut. Dr Liboiron has emphasized unequal scientific research methods, where “surface water plastic research in Inuit Nunangat and Greenland is led by Southerners and non-Inuit”. Local communities being largely left out of scientific research contributes to the erasure of local lived experiences and knowledges. A global plastic pollution treaty was endorsed by the United Nations in March 2022, yet the resolution does not indicate any gender specific policy or attention, contrary to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This abstract proposition seeks to bring special methodological attention to the inclusion of Inuit women’s perspectives and knowledges in policymaking and implementation on both community, regional and institutional levels. Pauktuutit, with their reports on gender violence in the mining industry, has provided significant support for effective gender equality policies within the sector. As such, a dual special plastic-focused analysis on both the oil extraction industry and on household plastic consumption in food is warranted considering the lack of gender-focused research at the institutional level which translated into community-level gender-blind policy implementation. Nunavut does not have special legislation pertaining to plastic waste management and as such, this abstract proposition comes timely and offers to continue the conversation on gender inclusion in policymaking and implementation in Nunavut in order to bridge several gaps: the scientific research gap, the policymaking gap, and the policy implementation gap where Inuit women knowledge- and rights-holders should hold a central space – whether that is directly or indirectly with institutional support from organizations like Pauktuutit.

Helene Svendsen, Project Manager, GRID-Arendal, helene.svendsen@grida.no

Plastics as an alienator of human-nature relationships?

Investigating whether strengthening human-nature relationships could help address unsustainable consumption and production patterns and how Indigenous Knowledge of women can inform and improve the management, use and reuse of plastics and their alternatives.

There is a growing awareness that the benefits and costs of plastics are not experienced equally, but are influenced by ecological, socioeconomic and gender variables. In the Arctic – as across the globe – Indigenous women are recognised as custodians of traditional knowledge systems, holding fundamental roles in their preservation and intergenerational transmission. Indigenous Knowledge – and the traditional way of living in harmony with the seasons – has made it possible for people to survive in the Arctic. According to Sámi knowledge holders (see reference), the impact of changing consumption patterns facilitated by cheap plastics and mass production contributes to changing human-nature relationships. The expression divdna ávkkástallat concerns the comprehensive use of a material, which means using all parts of a resource in the best manner possible in terms of its shape and function. Access to cheap and available plastics challenges these skills as well as people’s relationship with nature, their perception of the value of resources and goods, and their motivation for repairing items rather than buying new items. Our hypothesis is that strengthening awareness of women’s Indigenous Knowledge in the Arctic can help reduce plastic consumption by increasing people’s interest in knowledge of making things, and maintain and regenerate their understanding of ecological processes and natural resources.


This abstract is based on the following upcoming report:

Johnsen,K.I., Schoolmeester, T., Lillevoll, I.M., Retter, G-B. 2022. Displaced by Plastics. A conversation with Sámi knowledge holders about the impacts of plastics. GRID-Arendal, NIVA, Saami Council.

Carol Devine, MSc, Community Scholar, Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, York University, Toronto, Canada, carol@caroldevine.org

Plastic Pollution North, collecting and delivering evidence, informing solutions: A Sci-Art story from eXXpedition

Through storytelling from eXXpedition’s Round Britain Scotland leg in 2017, including of collecting freshwater samples to search for plastics, and joining a unique collaboration with ASCUS’s working laboratory fostering science and art collaborations in Edinburgh, eXXpedition co-Founder Dr Lucy Gilliam and crew member Carol Devine highlight how citizen science, science and art and participatory action helps make the invisible (microplastics) visible for local and international efforts to tackle ocean marine pollution.

eXXpedition’s pioneering all-female sailing research expeditions such as the Scotland one (and virtual voyages on land adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic) demonstrate how multi-disciplinary and multigenerational groups of women can investigate the causes of and solutions to ocean plastic and toxic pollution in oceans, the impact of persistent chemicals on female bodies and model women in STEM and sport. Through practical examples of partnerships with researchers and scientists globally, local engagement with communities and government, as well as global policy efforts, the co-authors illuminate the power of collaboration, addressing knowledge and gender gaps, and the value of delivering evidence to inform effective solutions.

Scotland is a near-Arctic vs Arctic nation, but it and eXXpedition take exceptional interest in the Arctic region. A crucial part of the story of Arctic ocean pollution is told by scientists including those in Lucy and Carol’s network who research plastic pollution’s transboundary nature, ocean currents and prevailing winds, maritime traffic and trade carries plastic pollution to the Arctic. They show that much plastic pollution found on Arctic beaches and in Arctic waters doesn’t originate from Arctic populations. Stories from eXXpedition, scientific research and the coauthors’ related Arctic work aim to inform on how solving this interlinked problem of plastic pollution in the Arctic and elsewhere requires mitigation, culture and policy change, and must target those most responsible- namely high consumption nations on a local and global stage.