Photo: John Cameron / Unsplash

If you keep up with the news, you’ve undoubtably seen all of the recent stories about the global plastic crisis.

Nearly all of the articles about plastics discuss the implications of plastic waste in our rivers and oceans.

Ocean plastic kills millions of marine mammals every year –– but what about plastic that’s discarded in the middle of a desert?

Positioned over 200 miles away from the nearest beach, Arizona’s trash doesn’t really pose a direct threat to the ocean. 

As you’ll see in this article, however, the plastic crisis isn’t just an issue affecting our oceans –– the desert has waste challenges and risks of its own.

Where does Arizona’s trash go?


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Phoenix Public Works Dept. (@talkingtrashphx) on

If you’ve ever driven southwest of Phoenix down the SR85, you may have seen the Southwest Regional Landfill.

Approximately one million tons of solid waste are buried in Phoenix’s Southwest Regional Landfill every year. 

As for the rest of Arizona, most trash ends up in landfills similar to the one on SR85.

Not all of our trash ends up in landfills, however.

Unfortunately, the sight of plastic bags on the side of roads, stuck in trees, and decorating cacti is familiar to many residents of this state.

In fact, a study published in the Journal of Arid Environments titled “Great Desert Garbage Patches” concluded that the density of discarded plastics is greater than the density of desert tortoises and western diamond-backed rattlesnakes combined in some areas of wilderness in AZ.

The study author, Erin Zylstra, found roughly 5.6/km2 – 35.4/km2 plastic bags, and 39.2/km2 – 62.7/km2 balloon clusters in the desert.

Contrary to what she expected, Zylstra found more trash out in the desert than she did right along the roads, suggesting that seasonal winds can carry plastic bags and balloons more than two kilometers into remote wilderness.

Although the latex in balloons can biodegrade, no one knows for certain how long that takes in the desert.

Plastic bags don’t biodegrade; they photodegrade — breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits that contaminate soil and waterways, and entering the food web when animals accidentally eat them.

Listed as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act, the desert tortoise is prone to eating latex balloons and getting entangled in balloon strings.

All types of garbage pose similar dangers to other desert animals, possibly even ending up in precious watering holes shared among myriad species. 

Fortunately, there are a few easy steps we can take to prevent more litter entering our desert

The city of Phoenix has taken steps to reduce the amount of waste our city generates ­–– most notably with the AZ zero waste initiative.

However, there are plenty of ways that we as individuals can also make an effort to keep trash out of our ecosystem.

These are the five main ways we can reduce the amount of plastic trash that ends up harming our ecosystems and wildlife:

1. Purchase less plastic

The easiest and most significant step you can take to reduce the amount of discarded plastic is to avoid purchasing it.

If you really want to make a difference, take it a step further than refusing plastic straws.

Here are a few ways you can avoid using unnecessary plastic:

  • Bring your own shopping bags to stores and farmers markets –– some grocery stores, like Whole Foods, offer a small discount if you bring your own bag!
  • Keep an eye out for needless packaging in the produce aisle and opt for the loose or bulk options
  • Consider using bar-based shower products and bring your own stuff to hotels so you can avoid using the sample-sized bottles
  • If you’re getting take out, bring your own containers and ask politely if they can be used instead of plastic boxes
  • Throw a fork into your bag so you can avoid using plastic cutlery when your co-worker brings birthday cake

The zero waste trend has been growing on social media so it’s not difficult to find online resources to help you take additional steps to reduce the amount of waste you produce.

Blogs like Going Zero Waste offer tips and advice to people who are interested in taking a positive step towards limiting their negative environmental impact.

2. Recycle whenever possible


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Phoenix Public Works Dept. (@talkingtrashphx) on

Sometimes, regardless of your efforts to avoid single-use plastics, you’ll end up with used plastic items that you’d like to discard.

Avoid throwing those plastic items into the regular trashcan –– when rubbish is being transported to landfill, plastic is often blown away because it’s so lightweight so it ends up becoming litter.

Some items, like plastic bags and paper towels, can’t be recycled. Plenty of grocery stores have collection bins for used plastic bags that can be recycled through their private services.

If you can, see if you can re-use the item a few times before recycling it. Some restaurants put their to-go orders into really high-quality plastic containers that can be used for up to a week as long as they are washed in cold water.

3. Don’t litter

This tip is kind of a given, but most of the time littering isn’t intentional.

Whenever you create waste, make sure to collect it in an area where it won’t be in danger of falling out of your car or bag, and properly discard of it in when you have the opportunity.

Some events, like firework shows and balloon release ceremonies, are detrimental to the environment and cause toxic waste to be distributed far into the desert wilderness. 

If you have the opportunity to reach out to event organizers, you can kindly let them know that they’re littering and that there are better ways to celebrate. 

Littering costs taxpayers more than $4 million each year to clean up trash along Arizona highways, and it has the potential to kill wildlife. 

If you’re out and about and see someone else littering, you can let them know it’s not appreciated or you can anonymously report them on the ADOT Litter Hotline.

4. Keep plastics out of the pipes

Products including wet wipes, contact lenses, cotton buds and sanitary products end up in our water systems via toilets and drains.

Some plastics, like microfibers, are so small we don’t even realize they’re going down our drains.

These plastics break down to be too small to be filtered out by waste water plants and can end up being consumed by small marine species, eventually even ending up in our food chain.

Avoid purchasing products made with plastic materials that can be washed away in the laundry or down the sink.

If you already own clothing that sheds microfibers, consider purchasing a Guppyfriend washing bag, which is scientifically proven to prevent microplastics from washing down the drain.

If you wear contact lenses, ask your optometrist if they are a part of a recycling program for discarded contacts and their packaging.

5. Pick up the trash you find

Leave No Trace” isn’t a principle that should be left on the trail or at Burning Man.

Try keeping a small trash bag in your car or backpack and picking up trash if you come across it.

I can guarantee that if you walk even just one mile a day outside you’ll come across at least a few pieces of plastic trash (most likely plastic bags or styrofoam gas station cups). Seasonal winds can carry these items miles out of the city and into our nature preserves and wilderness.

It might be a little gross to pick up random trash, but those five seconds might save an animal’s life!

The Arizona Sustainability Alliance’s Adopt-A-Park Initiative is currently running several projects in coordination with the City of Phoenix to clean up trash in North Mountain Park and Indian Bend Wash.

We’re always looking for more volunteers and would love your help to beautify our parks and protect our wildlife.

If you’d like to join us on one of our park clean ups, click here and choose “Adopt-a-Park” as your interested position.


> Stay up to date with AZSA’s latest projects, events, and blog posts by joining our free newsletter or connecting with us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.


Note: Learning about the plastic crisis can be emotionally taxing. If you find yourself experiencing climate grief or eco anxiety, make sure that you take steps to prioritize your mental health. One of the best ways to do this is to get involved with environmental volunteering –– planting trees with like-minded individuals can be very therapeutic. You can find the link to our volunteer on-boarding page here.



Written by Deanna Pratt for the Arizona Sustainability Alliance