While researching plastic wastes and what we can do to solve the problem, our class used a systems thinking exercise. Understanding the way a system works in the context of the environmental side of things, but also the economic and political sides and possible barriers and ways to overcome barriers. Working interdisciplinarily is the best way to achieve goals, and making it benefit as many parties as possible increases the chances of success. With systems thinking, steps can be taken in the right direction to solve the problem of plastic pollution.
Firstly, we need to think of the problems that we have at hand with plastic waste and the causes of those problems. Because of the way our society functions, there are many uses of plastics that we have today that are almost irreplaceable with any other material. Some big parts of our lives that use an excess of plastic include the medicine, the packaging industry, and the food industry. The problem is the release of these plastics’ chemicals that affects our own health and the plastic waste that continues to build around the world, especially in the oceans. The problem with this is that the plastics never break down completely, and will continue polluting our oceans and water killing marine life and affecting human well-being.
When looking at the causes of these problems, the medical, packaging, and food industries come to mind. In medicine, single-use plastics are used as a way to keep things sanitary for patients to minimize contamination and infections. This is probably the most understandable use for single-use plastics. However, the packaging industry uses unnecessary amounts of plastic to ship things. A big culprit for plastic waste is the food industry. With their unnecessary packaging of foods in plastics, lack of any other way to distribute their food, and overuse of plastic shopping bags, they have contributed immensely to the problem of plastic pollution. Furthermore, the use of single-use plastics in the restaurant industry including plastic plates, utensils, cups, straws, and water bottles. These are the most harmful and one of the easiest problems to fix on an individual level.
We then looked at the solutions to these problems and their limitations. Initial solutions to plastic waste include recycling of the plastic that we use. This is something that has become more of a social norm in the short-term rather than a long-term solution to plastic waste, especially waste that has already been released into the environment. Plastic recycling still leaves us with more plastic and doesn’t solve the issue of the plastic that is already polluting the environment, leaving it with limitations. Reducing the use of plastics in your every day life, including not using single-use plastics by obtaining reusable bottles, straws, and utensils. The disadvantages to this option are that it isn’t as convenient to some people as single-use plastics are with our fast-paced life.
With systems thinking, we also need to look at the barriers at hand. A major barrier in any initiative is the financial means; and since governments do not allot enough money to these problems that may seem non-pressing or not immediate, the process of plastic pollution has only furthered itself. Pessimism is also a barrier, because many people uphold the thought that the environment is beyond help, and that their individual actions will not make a difference. If all the 7.5 billion people in the world magically changed this thought and considered the importance of their individual action, we would be in a much different place.
The most important solutions to the problems of plastic waste require more innovation. Ideally, we would want to have alternatives that have the same qualities as plastics so that we can halt the production of plastics completely. This has been done with some over-used single use plastics with biodegradable or compostable plastics that have less of an impact on the environment. Some companies are even taking steps BACKWARD, like Snapple switching from glass bottles to plastics. In these situations, its up to people causing change through individual action. In this situation, petitions have been made for Snapple to go back to glass!
There has also been innovation in the ways that we can potentially remove plastics from the environment, especially the ocean. We would also need to have systems for removing the tons and tons of plastic that pollute our land and our oceans. These are the harder problems that need to be solved because of the plastic pollution our generation and the generations before us have left. There are almost inconceivable amounts of plastic that continue to hurt wildlife ecosystems, our environment, and our health. The next step would be to look into these potential solutions to weigh the pros, cons, and possibilities while continuing to educate the community about the problems we have caused in hopes of some solutions.