Toward a Plastic Responsible Future Unit Driving Question: What can we do to reduce the effects of plastic pollution?

Solutions to Plastic Waste Lesson Driving Question: How do we measure and remove plastic from the waste stream?

1. Prepare students to collect data on plastic pollution at their school.
  • Begin with a brief poll of the class asking:
      • Where do you expect to find the most plastic waste?
      • What kind of plastic waste do you expect to find the most of?
  • Record their responses on the board so that you can reference them after students have collected their data.

Have students collect their geospatial data.

  • Tell students that they are going to use their research plans to enter the field and begin conducting their own research for their projects.
  • Have student groups cover different areas of the school grounds (indoor and outdoor) to collect their data.
  • Have students bring their Plastic Waste Research Packets with them to document the data that they collect, and a container to collect waste that is not in a proper receptacle.
  • Return to the classroom and debrief.

Have students analyze their geospatial data.

  • Have student groups review their field notes to complete the Geospatial Data Analysis section in their Plastic Waste Research Packet.
  • Ask students to share their data with the class. As they do, record which areas of the school have the most and least plastic waste on the board.

4. Facilitate students conducting mock interviews.

  • Next, have student groups work on their interview questions. Have student groups divide their interview questions among their group members so that each group member has two or three questions to ask.
  • Direct students to write their questions down on a separate piece of paper. They can have duplicate questions, if needed.
  • Pair each student up with a student from another group.
  • Have students role-play interviewing each other with their questions. Encourage them to ask follow-up questions, as relevant.
  • Have students revise their questions based on the mock interview experience.

5. Send students to collect interview data.

  • Have students meet with their interviewees from the school community and conduct the interviews. Remind students to record responses as the interviewee is giving their answers.

 6.     Have students complete an exit ticket to consider their data sources.

  • Have students answer the following questions on a separate piece of paper for their exit ticket:
      • Which data source will be the most useful for your project: interview or geospatial? Explain your reasoning.
      • What are some of the shortcomings of getting all of our data from the school community? What could data from the larger community help us understand about plastic waste?
  • Collect the exit ticket.

Informal Assessment

  • Students submit their Plastic Waste Research Packet containing their interview questions, data collection, and analysis.
  • The exit ticket explains students' reasoning for which data sources address their research questions.

Extending the Learning

The class could do a garbage cleanup around their school to reduce plastic and other waste. Alternatively, the class could go on a field trip to a nearby location where there is a lot of plastic waste and clean up plastic in their community. This could also be an opportunity to expand the data collection outside the school.  

Subjects & Disciplines

  • Geography
  • Social Studies

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Collect and analyze geospatial data about plastic waste in their school.
  • Use practice interviews as feedback to improve interview questions.

Teaching Approach

  • Project-based learning

Teaching Methods

  • Experiential learning
  • Research
  • Simulations and games

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

The College, Career & Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • D1.5.6-8:  Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration multiple points of views represented in the sources.

What You’ll Need

Materials You Provide

  • Large container for collecting trash
  • gloves
  • Plastic Waste Research packet

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Other
  • Outdoor natural environment
  • Parking lot
  • School playground


  • Small-group learning
  • Small-group work

Accessibility Notes

Students with mobility difficulties should be assigned areas of the school that are easily accessible and smaller rather than larger, more distant areas such as the playfield.

Other Notes

This will take more than one class period unless you have a longer block. The way in which students conduct the interviews will impact the length of the class period.

Background Information

Plastic waste is all around us—it is ubiquitous in our homes and our environment. Take a walk anywhere, in your neighborhood, along a stream, through a playground, on the beach, in the forest, and you are almost guaranteed to find plastic trash. Depending on where you are, there may be different types of plastic waste present.

While items made from different plastic variations are found throughout the natural environment, the most common plastic types are polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, and polypropylene. The types of plastic waste potentially found in the environment will depend on the waste item itself and how it could enter the environment (e.g., fibers in the ocean and single-use packaging on land). In the ocean or along waterways, fibers are one of the most common types of plastic debris found. These fibers may come from maritime industries, wastewater treatment plants, or clothing. It is estimated that roughly 60 percent of our clothes are made out of synthetic materials, and when they wash, the synthetic (plastic) fibers shed and are washed into our environment.

To assess how much plastic is present in a given area, small spatial surveys, or quadrats, can be used. There is no way to measure all of Earth’s pollution, so scientists use quadrats and math to estimate how much there likely is. From these estimates, we can gauge what type of plastic is most common and develop a plan for reducing the types of plastic with the highest impacts.