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Pervasive Plastics: How Tribal Nations Bear the Cost of Pollution without Adequate Legal Support

MacKayla Class


  • Microplastics are a known toxin and found virtually everywhere in the world.
  • Globally and within the United States, not enough is being done to address the microplastics still in production or those already gathering in the food chain.
  • Current regulatory efforts do not adequately protect Tribal Nations, which have limited resources to protect themselves from the national problem.
  • Drastic legislation to ensure clean water and food for our most vulnerable communities is a necessity.
Pervasive Plastics: How Tribal Nations Bear the Cost of Pollution without Adequate Legal Support

In high school, I went to a summer camp for young women interested in marine biology. This camp had it all: kayaking, night snorkeling, and hands-on research with esteemed scientists in the field. Wrapped in the smell of half-dissected fish, we learned what it took to become researchers by counting the pieces of plastic in fish stomachs. It was the first time I considered how far into the corners of our world plastic could reach. 

Today, plastics and microplastics are found virtually everywhere and in everything. Microplastics can move through water and air, bioaccumulate in the food chain, and when small enough, are absorbed by our bodies through the food we eat. Once inside the body, microplastics are known to negatively impact our DNA and hormones, even causing diabetes and cancer. And for an added layer of concern, microplastics have a molecular structure that allows it to absorb and carry other harmful pollutants, including pesticides

Several authoritative bodies have addressed the issue of plastic pollution, though not enough has been done to protect our most impacted communities. The world has come together and acknowledged the issue through the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an international treaty that provides a list of particularly threatening chemicals, including microplastics. This conversation led the U.S. federal government to enact the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which banned microbeads in cosmetics. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also launched the Trash Free Waters Program to research and implement protective measures against pollution in waterways, as well as proposed regulations on six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water systems. While only some PFAS molecules are classified as microplastics, many plastics are coated with non-microplastics PFAS molecules and together, will spread through the environment unboundedly. Most recently, Congress has reintroduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which focuses on improving our recycling systems.

While the federal government has yet to fully resolve our exposure to microplastics, states like California have taken strides of their own.

After California adopted Senate Bill 1263 in 2018, the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) was required to create a Statewide Microplastics Strategy. OPC published this strategy report in 2022 as a plan to study adverse impacts of microplastics and educate the public to alter consumption patterns. Also in 2022, Governor Newsom of California signed Senate Bill 54 into law, focusing on improvements in plastic packaging production and recycling. The amount of plastic we use every day makes it clear that it will take time and drastic steps to make changes that limit or reverse the spread of microplastics.

Considering the pervasiveness of toxic microplastics, it may seem as if this issue equally impacts everyone, but it does not.

Tribal Nations are more significantly burdened by pollution and other chemical exposures compared to surrounding communities, yet they are not adequately protected by the policies currently in place. While the plans implemented by the federal government will apply to Tribal lands, states have no regulatory jurisdiction over Tribes. Thus, states often limit their efforts to protect Tribes and instead, rely on often-unenforceable consultation policies. Even California’s Statewide Microplastics Strategy lists, as one solution for the plastic waste issue, mere engagement with California Native American Tribes for public awareness purposes. While knowledge of a problem is certainly important, people simply cannot stop using plastic until alternatives are unavailable.

Plastic pollution also impacts Tribes at a greater rate because of the multiple layers of exposure. At the top of the food chain, humans consume higher concentrations of pollutants, like microplastics, after it has bioaccumulated in food sources. Tribal Nations that rely on subsistence fishing to live are especially vulnerable to microplastic contamination because of the portion of their diet coming from exposed sources. Furthermore, Tribal communities with limited access to fresh food and water are more likely to rely on fast food sources and bottled water–both of which utilize packing that contains toxins and even the water within the bottles is known to contain microplastics. However, usage within Tribal lands does nothing to prevent exposure from a myriad of external sources. In water supplies and the air, a major source of microplastics is tires. Not only does rubber absorb the chemicals used in tire manufacturing, but it also releases its particles and chemicals as cars drive and when tires are burned, which then gets picked up by stormwater flows. And Tribal lands have been a target for landfill placement, as well as illegal dumping and burning of waste. A comprehensive study published in 2020 details how Indigenous peoples around the world face the burdens of pollution disproportionately, explicitly stating that these communities are exposed to microplastics, as well as heavy metals, pesticides, and radioactive materials. Recent activism in Nevada has highlighted cancer clusters on Tribal reservations and has called for environmental protections from pollution.

Tribal water rights further complicate this issue. Tribal Nations are fighting just to get the water they are owed, regardless of the quality of the water in question. Currently, microplastic regulations and monitoring focus on public water systems. In reality, many Tribal members only have access to unregulated water sources, including wells. Resources spent fighting the court battles necessary to gain legal acknowledgment of treaty-given water rights puts further strain on these communities. Yet states continually drag legal proceedings along. While some states take stronger stances against Tribal water access than others, states seem more similar in their willingness to consult Tribes on strategies to address microplastic contamination.

In California, several examples of Tribal support stand out. Research grants are available for Tribal researchers or other teams partnering with Tribes to quantify microplastic contamination and study its toxicity. Studies have included Tribal communities in discussions of where to focus the limited research resources, as well as in the creation of a mathematical risk assessment for microplastic pollution.

Beyond further research and consultation, the federal government must take more drastic legal measures. The federal government is in the position to make the biggest step toward minimizing exposure to microplastics, such as legislation to fund supplies like water filters or monitoring devices. Even legislation that sets maximum limits on microplastic concentrations in stormwater, drinking water, and bottled water would empower communities to take remedial steps. While research is still being conducted to understand how different contamination levels truly harm people, we know enough to set some limits. These laws would continue raising awareness of the severity of this issue, alongside mitigating exposure of vulnerable populations. However, it would be difficult to sell this path to fiscally conservative and other groups that may face legal impacts from concentration limits. Alongside backlash from limitations, Tribes themselves may not want to share private community information. Through taxes or fines on plastic producers, we may be able to cover any of these costs instead of allowing the cost of microplastic exposure to fall on communities and healthcare systems. And through efforts to connect and build trusting relationships, Tribes may be more willing to support monitoring efforts.

Microplastics are already present within Tribal Nations at alarming and toxic rates. Enacting laws that define harmful parameters, provide funds for water treatment, and devices able to filter microplastics out will vastly improve the future health of Tribal communities. After seeing the confetti of plastics eaten by fish, I knew we were heading into a future where plastic and food sources needed to be separated. Now that plastic particles have gotten smaller and the negative impacts on human health are more realized, we need to take increasingly drastic actions to protect the communities paying the highest cost.