A new campaign by climate advocacy group Environmental Defence is exposing some of the harms caused by the life cycle of plastic, especially against Indigenous and other marginalized communities in Canada.

Karen Wirsig, senior program manager for plastics at Environmental Defence, said it was important for the campaign, called The Story of Plastic in Canada, to show the harmful impacts not only of plastic waste, but of the industries involved in creating plastics, which are petroleum products.

"We don't think about the full lifecycle of plastics," Wirsig told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Tuesday. "Plastic pollution starts right from the moment that you extract oil and gas from the ground, and so we thought it was important to tell that story…plastic creates pollution at every phase of its existence."

The immersive website shows how people living near industries associated with different stages of plastic production face an increased risk of cancer, water poisoning and toxic air emissions from plastic production, use and waste. Often, the communities most affected are Indigenous, Black or otherwise marginalized.


The Story of Plastic in Canada begins with fossil fuel extraction, since, according to Environmental Defence, 99 per cent of plastic is made from oil and gas.

"Extracting these resources accounts for more than one-quarter of all of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions," the web platform reads.

Alberta is Canada's largest oil and natural gas producer, and the province's Athabasca oil sands deposit is one of the largest in the world, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Syncrude oil sands facility

"There's a magnificent delta where the Athabasca meets the Peace River," Wirsig said of the land north of the oil sands, which is the traditional territory of the Mikisew Cree and Dene Chipewyan peoples. "It's just a magnificent delta teeming with life and so a very rich place with rich Indigenous heritage and languages and practices. Unfortunately, it also became one of the world's biggest and dirtiest industrial projects, which is the oil sands."

Not only does the Athabasca river flow north through the oil sands and into the delta, but toxic waste from oil sands operations is stored in massive tailings ponds large enough to be visible from space, which Wirsig said have been leaking for decades, polluting the lands and drinking waters of local Indigenous communities such as Mikisew Cree First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.


In southern Ontario, Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang First Nation are located at the site of a major plastic production hub, where large chemical manufacturing companies turn petrochemicals into some of the main ingredients in the most common plastics. The area known as "Chemical Valley" is 39 square kilometres and contains 40 per cent of Canada's petrochemical plants, according to a 2007 report by the Canadian environmental group Ecojustice.

"Aamjiwnaang is one of the more well documented cases of environmental racism in Canada," Wirsig said. "Because Aamjiwnaang really is ground zero for a big part of Canada's petrochemical activities, it was really important to make sure that the issues that they're facing there right now were included in this piece."

Two of the major players there, Imperial Oil and INEOS Styrolution, work with known carcinogen benzene to produce plastic products and ingredients like styrene.

Benzene is a naturally occurring substance in crude oil. According to Carex Canada, exposure via inhalation and skin contact can lead to a form of cancer known as acute non-lymphocytic leukemia. It's also considered a 'non-threshold toxicant,' meaning adverse health effects can occur at any exposure level.

Because of their proximity to petrochemical processes involving benzene, Wirsig said, Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang First Nation are exposed to exceptionally high levels of the chemical.

She said monthly air quality reports produced by Aamjiwnaang First Nation's Environment Department have shown the benzene concentration there can be up to 100 times higher than in other Canadian cities like Toronto or Ottawa.

According to Ontario’s Ambient Air Quality Criteria, concentrations of benzene above 2.3 micrograms per cubic metre daily or 0.45 micrograms per cubic metre annually can have harmful effects on human health.

Cathleen O'Brien, environmental coordinator with Aamjiwnaang First Nation said air quality monitoring data proves the levels of benzene and sulphur dioxide in the air are regularly above provincial thresholds.

"It appears that this has been going on for decades and has created a significant risk to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation and surrounding areas," O'Brien told CTVNews.ca in an email.

O'Brien said the community is working with the federal government on a partnership agreement that will give the first nation more authority to address their air quality issues, but only after feeling for years like their complaints fell on deaf ears.

"I feel our concerns were ignored for many years," she said. "It took months of consistent letter writing to government officials to get these issues recognized."


According to Environmental Defence and the Canadian Environmental Law Association, more than 90 per cent of plastic waste in Canada ends up in landfills, incinerators or directly in the natural environment.

Landfills are known to emit toxic gasses like methane, and account for about 23 per cent of Canada’s methane emissions. According to Wirsig, they are also often located near low-income communities, including Indigenous and other racialized communities.

"That's part of the plastics story because so much of what we send to landfill is laced with plastic," Wirsig said. "So plastics are filling our landfills, and Toronto's landfill is located adjacent to two Indigenous communities in southwestern Ontario, the Oneida of the Thames First Nation and the Chippewas of the Thames."

The Nova Scotia-based Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health (ENRICH) Project found dumps, landfills and other environmentally dangerous sites are more likely to be located in African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaw communities. The project also found that these communities suffer from high rates of cancer and respiratory illness.


The specific details around how racialized and otherwise vulnerable communities end up stuck with the fallout from heavily polluting industries vary from case to case.

In the case of Aamjiwnaang, the community's 15,000 Anishinaabek members once occupied a much larger territory than they do today, but exposure to and dealings with European settlers reduced both their population and their territory dramatically.

From 1850 to 1950, urban encroachment by Sarnia resulted in a series of treaties that whittled their lands from over 4,046 hectares to approximately 1,254 hectares. The result was to create the current reserve in the city limits of Sarnia on what Wirsig said was considered "marginal" land.

Aamjiwnaang First Nation

"[It] ended up being a perfect place for oil refining and chemicals production and so Aamjiwnaang got stuck with all these refineries literally in their backyard," she said.

In the case of the oil sands, the fact that the Peace–Athabasca Delta had long been home to the Mikisew Cree and Dene Chipewyan peoples was not enough to halt the exploration and eventual development of the oil sands to the south, which Wirsig said "trumped the inherent rights of the people who were there before."

Whether a community is moved onto land that is eventually relegated to industrial uses — sometimes referred as "sacrifice zones" — or their longstanding territory is mined for resources like oil and gas, Wirsig said each case has the same threads in common.

"It's convenient for settler-capitalists to set up shop, and can kind of do it with the help of the Crown, with the help of the federal government overriding any potential concerns…without really any regard for the people who are actually living there," she said.

"And people who are seen (to have) or who do have less political power often end up hosting or being neighbours to some of the dirtiest industries that happen."

A United Nations Human Rights Council report from 2020 cited many of the same examples highlighted in The Story of Plastic in Canada in demonstrating that environmental injustice still affects a disproportionally large number of Indigenous and racialized people in Canada today.

"As they live on the fringes of protection from toxics, Indigenous and racialized communities are more likely to be exposed because they lack enforceable environmental rights, typically do not have the political or financial means to challenge powerful polluting industries and often face societal pressures to accept such industries because of the need for employment, among other factors," the report reads.

"Adding insult to injury, 'lifestyle choices' associated with poverty are cited to dismiss, discredit and even blame victims of discriminatory toxic exposure who develop diseases and disabilities, instead of placing the burden on polluting actors to demonstrate that they did not contribute to adverse health impacts."

In addition to pointing out the human costs at all stages of plastic production and consumption, The Story of Plastic in Canada includes a list of calls to action aimed at key industry players and different levels of government. It calls for solutions ranging from expanding bans on single use plastic to ending subsidies for petrochemical and plastics production.

"Canada is hosting the fourth negotiation session to develop a global plastics treaty. This international assembly will aim to address pollution at all stages of the plastics life cycle, by working toward a comprehensive solution to one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time - plastic pollution," the platform reads.

"To seize this moment, we must encourage the federal government to adopt more decisive measures on plastic pollution right here in Canada."

So far, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) has banned the manufacture of single-use plastic goods including checkout bags, cutlery, food service containers made from or containing difficult-to-recycle plastics, ring carriers, stir sticks and, with some exceptions, straws.

ECCC spokesperson Nicole Allen said the federal department is working on launching other aspects of a "comprehensive plan to reduce plastic pollution" that include further reducing unnecessary and problematic plastics, strengthening reuse and other recovery processes, removing plastics from the environment and improving how necessary plastics are manufactured.

"ECCC will continue to work collaboratively with its partners to advance its comprehensive plan at home and abroad," Allen said in an email to CTVNews.ca, "including by working with provinces and territories through the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment to implement the Canada-wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste and Action Plan."