Closing the Loop: Toward a Circular Economy Unit driving question: How can we make our economy more circular, and why does it matter? 

The Circle of Stuff Lesson driving question: How can a circular economy minimize harm to the environment and human health?


  1. Use an infographic to help students visualize the flow of materials into and out of the global economy.
  • Ask students to close their eyes and imagine the largest object made by humans on Earth. Ideas to spur their thinking include: large airplane, skyscraper, stadium, space shuttle.
  • Modeling the same process that students engaged in about their favorite belonging in the There’s No Such Place as Away activity, elicit students’ ideas about the resources needed to make that object. Ideas to spur their thinking include: metals, fossil fuels, wood.
  • Explain that to help visualize and understand these kinds of questions about the use and consumption of objects in our lives, students will engage with an infographic about how materials flow through the global economy. Specifically, their goal will be to track minerals from extraction through disposal.      
  • Show or provide access to the infographic An X-Ray of the Global Economy. Follow the steps below to walk students through how to interpret the infographic:
    • Start at the left of the infographic, noting that there are four main resources that are extracted from the Earth: minerals (purple), ores (orange), fossil fuels (brown), and biomass (green). Elicit students’ ideas or provide definitions for each of these terms.
    • Note that all the numbers listed represent billions of tons. Therefore, start by indicating the total extracted resources: 93 billion tons. Tell the class that this means that the amount of resources extracted from the Earth every year equals approximately half the total mass of Mount Everest.
    • Indicate the words on the top of the infographic: take, process, produce, provide, societal needs, and end of use. Follow the path of minerals, one of the resource streams, from left to right along the top of the infographic. Ask: According to the infographic, how are minerals used in the economy? (Possible responses: They are used in construction; they are used to build houses.)
    • Indicate the thinner strands that branch off the main trunk of the minerals column, which connect to ores and biomass below. Ask: Why are minerals combined with other raw materials? (Possible responses: They are combined with ores to make machines, vehicles, and metal products; they are combined with biomass to make retail and trade products, health care products, services, and consumables.)
    • Indicate the arrow at the far right of the chart that points to “Accumulated global stock of long-lasting material.” Ask: What does this arrow represent? (Possible response: This arrow represents the fact that a lot of minerals and other materials are used to make buildings, which last a long time and do not immediately become part of the waste stream.)
    • Ask: According to the infographic, where else do minerals end up? (Possible responses: Dispersed into the environment as unrecoverable waste. Note: This means pollution and/or litter; Landfill; Incineration. Note: This means materials are burned to release energy; Reused resources.)
    • Ask: Does this infographic represent a linear economy, a circular economy, or something else? Have students discuss with a partner before sharing their responses. (Possible responses: Linear, because the vast majority of the materials end up as pollution or litter; circular, because 10 percent of the resources are recycled back into the economy; it’s not exactly one or the other. It’s mostly linear, but a little bit circular due to the reused resources, and the fact that a lot of the material is long-lasting and not waste.)
  • If desired, provide students additional time to engage in small groups with the infographic, tracking pathways of other extracted resources. Elicit students’ reflections, ideas, and questions that arise from doing so.


  1. Lead a discussion to invite students to consider how the waste management hierarchy applies to their everyday lives.
  • Reference the student brainstorm and findings about negative effects of resource extraction and waste disposal during the There’s No Such Place as Away activity. Remind students that, as they brainstormed and noticed with the X-Ray of the Global Economy infographic, there are many ways to reduce the harm caused by resource extraction and waste disposal. Display an image of the recycling symbol. Ask: What does this image mean? Where have you seen it before? (Possible responses: Recycle; Reduce, reuse, recycle; Seen on recycle bins and trucks, different types of recyclable containers, or advertisements reminding people to recycle.)
    • Ask: What do reduce, reuse, and recycle mean? Can you give an example of each? (Possible responses: Reduce means to use less of something. For example, if I decide to ride my bike to the store instead of driving, I reduce the amount of gasoline I use; reuse means to use something again instead of throwing it away. For example, if I have old books or toys I no longer use, I can donate them to a younger person or a charitable organization; recycle means to sort certain materials that can be used in new products instead of sending them to landfill. For example, I recycle soda bottles and cans instead of throwing them away.)
    • Have students work together in pairs to fill out The Three Rs handout. Circulate while students are working to monitor progress and provide targeted help.
    • Ask: Out of all three of these practices, which do you think would have the biggest impact for the environment and why? Have students discuss with a partner before sharing with the class. (Possible answers: Reducing would have the biggest impact, because the best way to eliminate waste is to stop creating waste in the first place. This also means that new materials don’t have to be extracted, which reduces impacts at both ends of the linear economy; reusing would have the biggest impact, because some things—such as books, clothes, reusable water bottles and grocery bags—can be used over and over and over. When we reuse, we also reduce the demand for new products' recycling would have the biggest impact, because it’s easy, many things are recyclable, and everyone can do it. Recycling also decreases the need for raw material extraction.)
    • Explain that waste management professionals consider the three Rs to be a hierarchy, meaning that some practices can have a greater impact than others. In fact, the order in which we usually remember the three Rs is the order of their importance, according to experts: first, reduce; second, reuse; and last, recycle. Students may be surprised to hear that recycling is the lowest on this list, since it is the one that most people are most familiar with in their everyday lives.
    • Ask: Are there any other words beginning with re- that you would add to this waste management hierarchy? And where in the hierarchy would you place them? Have students discuss with a partner before sharing with the class.
      • Discuss any on-topic answers.


  1. Use an infographic to expand the concept of the Three Rs to include the full zero-waste hierarchy.
  • Display the Zero Waste Hierarchy infographic from Zero Waste Europe. Walk through the different parts of it as a class, collaboratively defining unfamiliar terms.
    • Ask: How is this image different from the three Rs? (Possible responses: It has more than three things that we can do; it makes the hierarchy of impact visible in its layout and design; reduce and reuse are grouped together; some of the actions on this hierarchy—such as redesigning—are not things that individuals can easily do, but they can be done by companies and governments.)
    • Ask: How is this image related to the concept of a circular economy? (Possible Responses: We need to use the practices from the Zero Waste Hierarchy to make our economy more circular; the Zero Waste Hierarchy helps us decide which pieces of the circular economy will make the biggest difference. For example, refusing and redesigning can have bigger impacts than recycling; this image also reminds us that we should work to minimize wastes, although we may never be able to eliminate them completely.)
    • Explain that reducing, reusing, and recycling are important, but they can only get us so far. To make our economy truly circular, or zero waste as described in this infographic, we need to do even more than that. We also need to think about waste management as a hierarchy where some practices are more important than others, because they have bigger impacts. Emphasize that many of the high-impact practices on the hierarchy may be challenging to take on as individuals; governments and companies must be held responsible for changing their practices to have broader impacts.
    • Ask: According to this infographic, what are the most important R-actions with the biggest impacts? (Possible responses: refuse, rethink, and redesign.)
    • Ask: Why do you think these actions are considered to have an even bigger impact than reducing, reusing, and recycling? Have students discuss in small groups before sharing answers with the class. (Possible responses: Refusing is a way of reducing completely. If I refuse plastic straws and plastic bags, it’s even better than reducing because I don’t use any, and other people may decide to refuse as well; rethinking has a big impact because many people don’t consider the impacts of their consumption and waste habits. When people rethink their habits, they can make decisions that have less impact on the environment, and can even save them time and money as well; redesigning is important because individual people cannot solve all the problems of the linear economy. When products and systems are redesigned, it makes it easier for individuals to make good decisions about reducing and recycling.)
    • Ask: Do you agree with this ordering of the hierarchy? Why or why not? Have students discuss with a partner before sharing with the class.
    • Distribute the Zero Waste Hierarchy: Beyond the Three Rs handout, prompt students to write a list of actions they can take in their own lives to apply the zero waste hierarchy.
      • Consider having students share out their ideas for how to reduce their environmental impact according to the zero waste hierarchy.
      • Have students store the completed Beyond the Three Rs handout in their project folders.


Informal Assessment

Students' responses on their Beyond the Three Rs handouts and their contributions to class discussions provide evidence that they understand the more nuanced aspects of circular economies and how to apply to their own lives.

Extending the Learning

For students who express an interest in learning more about zero-waste principles, share resources like "Zero Waste: A Beginner’s Guide," Zero Waste ClassroomNOAA’s Students for Zero Waste Week, and the Post-Landfill Action Network. Take care, however, to help students recognize the nuanced ways that race, class, and ability influence the accessibility of lifestyle choices related to minimizing consumption and waste. As applicable, use the following resources and ideas to support students in using their privilege to support all communities in becoming more sustainable: "Use Your Privilege & Make Zero Waste Accessible," "Environmental Racism is a Zero Waste Issue Too," "Living A 'Zero-Waste Life' Is Only Possible If You're Privileged."

Subjects & Disciplines

  • Conservation
  • Social Studies
    • Economics

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Interpret information from an infographic about the global economy in order to understand the need for circular economic systems.
  • Use the concept of a zero-waste hierarchy to create a list of behaviors that can reduce their own resource consumption and waste production.

Teaching Approach

  • Project-based learning

Teaching Methods

  • Discussions
  • Reflection
  • Visual instruction

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Geography Standards

  • Standard 11:  The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth's surface
  • Standard 14:  How human actions modify the physical environment
  • Standard 16:  The changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources

National Science Education Standards

  • DCI ESS3.A:  Natural Resources: Humans depend on Earth’s land, ocean, atmosphere, and biosphere for many different resources. Minerals, fresh water, and biosphere resources are limited, and many are not renewable or replaceable over human lifetimes. These resources are distributed unevenly around the planet as a result of past geologic processes.

Next Generation Science Standards

What You’ll Need

Required Technology

  • Internet Access: Optional
  • Tech Setup: Projector

Physical Space

  • Classroom


  • Large-group instruction
  • Large-group learning
  • Small-group learning
  • Small-group work

Accessibility Notes

Consider providing printed copies of the infographics and images used in this activity for students who have special vision-related needs.

Background Information

Waste management is often positioned as a consumer or governmental problem, but it is important to foreground how business plays a key role. Corporations are responsible for producing the majority of the world’s waste, and they also profit from it. Anti-littering campaigns often take the form of corporate greenwashing: giving the impression of doing something to help the environment, while resisting the major structural and economic changes necessary to reduce and eliminate waste. A textbook example is Keep America Beautiful, one of the best-known anti-littering groups.


Keep America Beautiful is funded by some of the largest companies responsible for creating and profiting from plastic waste in the first place, including Philip Morris, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and McDonald’s. One of Keep America Beautiful’s first slogans was “People start pollution; people can stop it.” This phrasing puts the onus on individual consumers to stop pollution, rather than on corporations to reduce the amount (and type) of waste they use to sell their products. Keep America Beautiful has actively opposed “bottle bill” legislation that would have required a five-cent deposit for beer and soft drink containers (which is standard for most European countries and has proven to be a successful measure to increase recycling rates). Meanwhile, they supported plans for community clean-ups and litter taxes, both of which place the responsibility on consumers (rather than producers) and do nothing to reduce the amount of waste being created in the first place.


The full zero-waste hierarchy takes corporate responsibility into account by placing rethinking and redesigning at the top of the hierarchy. It also includes individual responsibility, not only by recycling, but also by refusing to buy unnecessary products in the first place.

Prior Knowledge

  • None

Recommended Prior Activities



something that can be used up (consumed), such as food or fuel.


identification of certain actions or items as having greater or lesser relative impacts.

linear economy

system where raw materials are collected and transformed into products, which are eventually discarded as waste.


inorganic material that has a characteristic chemical composition and specific crystal structure.


deposit in the Earth of minerals containing valuable metal.


to clean or process in order to make suitable for reuse.


in the zero-waste hierarchy, modifying how products are produced, sold, and how waste is managed.

zero waste

process and philosophy that advocates for redesigning products and patterns of consumption with the goal of producing no waste.

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