As a state with well-developed manufacturing industry, Arizona has to deal with a number of potential pollution issues. Additionally, it has to contend with more global problems, such as carbon emissions or the need to transition to cleaner energy sources. The problem selected for this presentation is similarly global in nature, though it takes place on the local level. It is the plastic pollution generated throughout the state, which compounds over time and has adverse effects on both the inhabitants of the state and its natural environments. As such, it is essential to understand the sources of the issue and its scope to determine how urgent the need for action is and what measures should be taken.
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Causes of Plastic Pollution
Many pollution issues are attributed to businesses, whose production processes create waste that is then not recycled properly and released into nature. However, plastic pollution is generally not such a problem because of the ways in which the material is used. Its most discarded form is packaging, which businesses try to minimize to save costs. However, many consumer items, such as beverages or processed foods, come in plastic containers for which there is no use after they are opened. Additionally, single-use bags are typically made of plastic and also discarded after use by definition. As a result, plastic pollution is generated predominantly by people in their everyday lives.
Only 9% of all plastic waste generated in the United States is ultimately recycled. There are two primary reasons for this: a lack of appropriate facilities and non-adherence to a recycling culture. The latter is more important than the two, as, without it, there is not enough demand to create the former. As is, people often do not see the merit in separating their waste proportional to the effort of doing so, and many avoid waste disposal spots altogether and litter where they are. It should also be noted that plastic bags tend to be light and are easily carried away by the wind if not adequately secured, which also often does not take place.
Most people are familiar with the sorts of effects that plastic can have on wildlife. Animals can confuse it with food or eat foodstuffs contaminated with it, blocking their digestive systems with non-digestible material over time and starving as a result. Additionally, plastic tends to concentrate other contaminants around it, creating doses that can be harmful to wildlife (Mateyo et al., 2016). Humans also consume microplastics in a variety of ways, such as in drinking water, though the health effects of such ingestion are currently unclear (Rhodes, 2018). Potentially the most significant issue is that plastics do not decompose well, with polystyrene, in particular, taking upwards of 500 years to decompose if it ever does, which is not guaranteed (Wildlife over waste, n.d.). As a result, over time, the problems will become considerably worse than they are now unless they are addressed effectively.
There are numerous ways to evaluate the severity of the plastic waste problem, both in terms of production and outcomes. Statistics on the usage of plastic in the state should be available to government agencies, and recycling companies likely provide documentation regarding the amounts of waste they have processed. By subtracting the second figure from the first, it is possible to obtain an overall understanding of how many pollutants were generated in a given period. Once released, plastics tend to move into the water through the ground (Mateyo et al., 2016), and so, collecting samples of both and testing them can help identify the current severity of the issue. Lastly, in the long term, the effects of plastic can be evaluated by monitoring the wildlife population and factoring in the potential sickness and death caused by the material.
The simplest, though not the easiest, way of addressing the issue of mounting amounts of plastic throughout the environment is to ban some of its uses. With that said, this option is likely to be met with significant backlash from both the public and businesses that use plastic extensively as government overreach, and other options should be explored, as well. The circular economy, where waste is recycled and reused as much as possible, is a potential solution to the problem, but it requires substantial investments and technological growth. The most feasible current solution, though it will require extensive effort, is to improve awareness of plastic pollution and convince people to behave more responsibly.
Local governments can pass bans on the usage of plastic. They are most often applied to plastic bags, as replacements made of paper and various fabrics have been developed and are available for use. 150 cities and counties in California have applied such a ban, leading to a 72% reduction in plastic bag litter between 2010 and 2017 (Percival et al., 2019). With that said, as with much unilateral government action, such bans are associated with a large variety of problems, which have led their adoption to be slow. Notably, Arizona’s state legislature has forbidden local plastic bag bans from being passed, as did Idaho, Michigan, and Missouri (Percival et al., 2019). As such, this solution is currently not feasible, and more agreeable answers need to be found.
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Recycling and the Circular Economy
As awareness of the dangers of traditionally used plastics grows, researchers and companies are developing methods for producing their varieties that do not share the same issue. Plastics that can degrade quickly in natural environments and would consequently solve the problem of accumulation once cost-effective ways of producing them emerge are being considered. Additionally, better methods of degrading plastics are being developed, for example, using a particular bacterium (Rhodes, 2018). Ultimately, this research leads to the concept known as the circular economy, where most of the waste is recycled and put back in the system, minimizing pollution in a cost-effective fashion. The EU is planning to develop such a framework by 2030, but currently, the available technologies only allow for partial improvements and not a complete framework.
While passing prohibitions may not necessarily be well-received by communities and lawmakers, it is still possible to convince people to avoid plastic pollution. If people understand the effects their actions are having, they will be less likely to litter and prefer products that avoid plastic packaging (Rhodes, 2018). Moreover, if communities are aware of the plastic pollution issues they are facing and the adverse effects thereof, they will be more receptive to other methods of controlling the problem. As such, awareness can serve as a catalyst for solutions to emerge in addition to its direct effects on pollution.
Plastic pollution is not immediately apparent in most cases unless it develops to an alarming degree, such as in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. However, the problem being hard to perceive does not mean that it is absent, especially for plastic, much of which does not naturally degrade over time. As such, if the issue is not addressed, over time it will develop to degrees where it will begin affecting the lives of people noticeably. With that said, no comprehensive and universally effective approaches to address plastic pollution have been developed yet. As such, it is advisable to use existing approaches in combination and stay informed of the latest advances in technology to achieve the best effects and prevent the issue from compounding.
Mateyo, R., Arroyo, B., & Garcia, J. T. (Eds.). (2016). Current trends in wildlife research. Springer International Publishing.
Percival, R. V., Telesetsky, A., Harmon-Walker, L., & Yang, T. (2019). Comparative and global environmental law and policy. Wolters Kluwer.
Rhodes, C. J. (2018). Plastic pollution and potential solutions. Science Progress, 101(3), 207-260.
Wildlife over waste. (n.d.). Environment Arizona Research & Policy Center. Web.