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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

It’s painful to see how much it costs to fill up a car or a pickup truck because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But the addiction to fossil fuels goes way beyond that: It’s a bottle of water. A broom. In fact just about any household product.

Or even much of our food.

As the International Energy Agency reports: “We live in a world dependent on petrochemicals. From the cars we drive to the food on our plates, the products and materials we derive from petrochemicals are fundamental to many aspects of modern society. Plastics and fertilizers, the two largest groups of chemical sector products, are indispensable in our everyday lives. Plastics is the fastest-growing group of bulk materials in the world, and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers underpin nearly half the world’s food production.”

And the largest petrochemical producer is China – and its primary source is oil from Russia. The food part of this equation is largely fertilizer and Russia is by far the largest producer earning that country some $8.5 billion a year in sales.

“America is China’s largest trading partner — but China is Russia’s largest trading partner. This bizarre love triangle … is wrecking our world, because the money from this triangular trade ends up going right back to Russia,” writes Umair Haque in Medium. “Our Western lives are literally increasingly made of Russian oil — and its other resources — in ways we have yet to understand at all, from our clothes to shoes to sheets to screens and beyond. We need to unravel it, and rebuild the global economy, before it’s too late.”

Source: Canada Energy Regulator

Source: Canada Energy Regulator

Overall the International Energy Agency says the use of petrochemicals is growing, the evidence is that demand is higher than any other sector of the fossil fuel industry. The projection is that direct CO2 emissions from petrochemicals will increase by around 20 percent by 2030 and 30 percent by 2050.

Some tribal governments and enterprises, such as casinos, have been moving away from the use of plastics anyway, driven by concerns about ocean pollution. (The Pacific Ocean has three large plastic islands. Even though the name suggests a huge patch, it’s really debris that is mostly microplastic that is not visible to the naked eye.” The total quantity of plastic in the ocean is about 250 pieces per person, or 1.8 trillion pieces total.)

Seminole Gaming in Florida, and other similar enterprises, have eliminated plastic straws at casinos. Other tribes have moved against single-use styrofoam.

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In Alaska the Metlakatla Indian Community in 2019 opted to ban plastic bags (the code has been suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic).

“Plastic bags were prolific in the environment and seemed to be rolling around Metlakatla like tumbleweeds,” according to a report on waste by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. “Because Metlakatla is an island community, these plastic bags would eventually end up polluting waterways and harming marine life. The number one industry in Metlakatla is fishing, so the tribe is dependent on clean waterways. Therefore, the tribe decided that a code to ban plastic bags made the most sense.”

“We switched away from some of our plastic products we use,” Mike Childs Jr. told Indian Country Today. He is treasurer for the Prairie Island Mdewakanton Dakota Tribe in Minnesota. Instead of cups being made of styrofoam or plastic the tribe and its enterprises are moving toward sustainable products. “We’re questioned because you know, it's more expensive, but I mean, really, is it? I mean is it more expensive to have compostable containers or plastic flying around … floating around in the Pacific Ocean out there?”

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Expect this topic to grow in importance as the price of petrochemicals, again, plastics, increases because of the Russian attacks.

A similar debate is going on in agriculture. Petrochemicals are used as fertilizer. The International Energy Agency says that nitrogen fertilizers, plastics, synthetic fibers and rubber account for 70 percent of mass production of chemicals.

One immediate impact of that fertilizer is an excess of nutrients in water systems, creating dead zones. Last year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded some $2 million for tribes to clean up nonpoint source pollution.

One alternative to that is a return to Indigenous farming practices, such as overlapping. A 1996 paper in Ethnobiology Letters by Jane Mt. Pleasant concluded that: “Intercropping maize, bean, and pumpkin provided a highly productive cropping system that largely satisfied the dietary needs of Haudenosaunee communities. The anchor of the system, maize, is unique among cereal grains with its tall, robust plant architecture that produces large quantities of nutrient-dense grain.” She found that growing a variety of crops in the same place, using the Three Sisters approach (corn, pumpkins and beans) was more efficient than single crops.

For its part the International Energy Agency’s report, “The Future of Petrochemicals: Towards more sustainable plastics and fertilizers,” says “Chemical feedstock cannot be decarbonised – carbon is required to provide the structure and properties of most primary chemicals, and the chemical products they go on to constitute. However, the source of the carbon in chemical feedstock need not be derived from fossil fuels.”

Another conclusion:

“The majority of the waste that arises from chemical-derived products relates to plastics,” the report said. “Where possible, the best waste management policy for plastics is to avoid waste generation in the first place. Where waste generation is unavoidable, well-designed products can reduce waste and costs. It is likely that recycling, incineration and landfill will continue to play a combined role in waste management options, but attention needs to be given to ensure best practice is pursued in each case.”

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor-at-large for Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix. The Indigenous Economics Project is funded with a major grant from the Bay and Paul Foundations.

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