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

The Plastic Problem Lesson Driving Question: What is the problem with plastic?

1. Introduce students to plastic sachets.
  • Show students an image or an example of a plastic sachet (an example would be a condiment packet or other single-use sealed package).
  • Discuss with students:
      • Can anyone tell me what this is?
      • When you’ve used these or seen these in the past, did you recognize them as plastic?
      • Why might these be useful products for a business?
      • Where else have you seen packaging like this?

2. Play segments of an NPR podcast to explain the environmental impact of single-use plastic sachets.

  • Remind students that the purpose of this unit is to develop a policy proposal that will reduce or eliminate plastic waste in their community.
  • Frame the learning of this activity by explaining to students that they can’t propose meaningful changes in their policy proposals until they better understand the impacts of plastic. It is important to understand that not everyone is impacted by plastic waste in the same way.
  • Play from 0:00–2:02 of the radio segment A Small Plastic Package Is A Big Culprit of the Waste Filling Oceans.
  • Have students take a couple of minutes to write down single-use plastics that they use. Then, ask students to discuss with their project group their own use of single-use plastics such as plastic sachets.
  • Next, play from 5:00–6:36 of the same radio report.
  • Discuss the similarities and differences between the city of San Fernando and the Manila neighborhood of Maysilo, both in the Philippines. Emphasize the economic differences and the common problem of sachets.
  • Ask students to discuss with a neighbor:
      • Whose responsibility is it to dispose of packaging properly? Explain your reasoning.
      • What might be some other solutions other than proper disposal?
  • Elicit several student responses.

3. Have students read an article to learn about shipping plastic waste overseas.

  • Connect the NPR discussion with the article students will read in this step by explaining that some wealthy countries’ solution to disposing of plastic waste is to send it to poorer countries to process.
  • Before reading, have students count off by four and assign each group one of the questions below to focus their reading. Direct them to write down that question at the top of a note-taking page.
      • How might shipping plastic waste to China impact U.S. residents’ understanding of recycling?
      • How might shipping recycling to poorer countries in Asia impact U.S. residents’ views of those countries?
      • What do you think happens to plastic waste that is shipped to countries that don’t have the means to process it properly?
      • How might views of plastic waste change if the United States has to manage all of its own recycling?
  • During the reading, have students take two-column notes on the article in order to answer their chosen question.
  • In small groups, have students read the article Shipping Plastic Waste to Poor Countries Just Got Harder.
  • As students are reading, assign each corner in the room one of the questions that students are focusing on while reading. After reading, direct students to go to the corner of the room to meet with other students who were reading for the same question.
  • In these groups, have students compare their notes and come up with the most complete answer they can, citing evidence from the reading. When their answer is complete, have students share summaries of their discussions with the class.

4. Engage students in an analysis of data to connect global income inequality with plastic waste management.

  • Project the website, Plastic Pollution, and navigate to the section, Which Countries Produce the Most Plastic Waste?
  • Ask students to use the maps to discuss with a neighbor: Which countries produce the most plastic waste?
  • Next, scroll down to the section titled Mismanaged Plastic Waste.
  • Have students use the map in this section to discuss the following: 
      • Which parts of the world have the most mismanaged waste?
      • How does this compare with the maps showing the countries that produce the most waste?
  • Read the two bulleted paragraphs above the map aloud to the students.
  • Ask students to discuss:
      • What is the relationship between poor countries and plastic waste?
      • Is this relationship problematic? Explain.

5. Lead students in a brief discussion with their project group to make local connections with the content of the activity.
  • Ask students to discuss with their group members:
      • What kind of recycling systems do we have in our community? (curbside pickup, take to transfer station, can and bottle collection stations).
      • What would we do with our plastic if we couldn’t recycle it?
  • Connect their responses with less sophisticated waste management systems, such as those in poor countries. Ask: What assumptions do we make about poorer countries when we try to ship plastic waste that they can’t recycle (such as contaminated or mixed plastics)?
  • Remind students that their project is to reduce plastic waste in their community. Knowing what waste management options are available locally will be an important piece of proposing realistic solutions.

6. Have students complete an exit ticket reflection.
  • On a piece of paper, have students respond to the following questions:
      • What is the problem with single-use plastics like sachets?
      • What is an example of inequality with plastic waste management in different parts of the world?
  • Collect the exit ticket and review responses.

Informal Assessment

Use the classroom discussions to informally assess students’ explanations and analyses of cultural and economic differences in different parts of the world, and their relationship with plastic waste.

Complete an exit ticket to explain how geographic inequality is related to plastic waste management.

Extending the Learning

Students explore their town or city and record inequalities as they relate to plastic waste, then share their observations with the class.

Subjects & Disciplines

  • Conservation
  • Geography
  • Social Studies

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Explain how inequality manifests in plastic waste management.

Teaching Approach

  • Project-based learning

Teaching Methods

  • Discussions
  • Reading
  • Reflection

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2:  Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

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

  • D2.Geo.10.6-8.:  Analyze the ways in which cultural and environmental characteristics vary among various regions of the world.
  • D2.Geo.4.6-8:  Explain how cultural patterns and economic decisions influence environments and the daily lives of people in both nearby and distant places.

What You’ll Need

Required Technology

  • Internet Access: Required
  • Tech Setup: 1 computer per classroom, Speakers

Physical Space

  • Classroom


  • Large-group instruction
  • Small-group work

Other Notes

This activity would be best taught during one block period or taught over two days.

Background Information

Although plastic is used worldwide, the volume of plastic used and the ways in which it is disposed of varies from place to place. Population size and quality of waste management systems are key determining factors in where plastic waste originates from. Since well-developed countries have sophisticated waste management systems, they have relatively high rates of recycling (approximately 30 percent; most waste is discarded). Poor countries often lack these types of systems and are more likely to mismanage their plastic waste. Yet they still have a great deal of plastic used as packaging, containers, household items, and other common uses for plastic. Without systems for managing plastic waste in place, plastic is disposed of along with other nonrecyclable or noncompostable solid waste. Even in countries that do have strong systems for waste management systems, most plastic is not recycled. It is treated as garbage and ends up incinerated or dumped in landfills.

Prior Knowledge

  • None



having to do with money.


difference in size, amount, or quality between two or more things.


combination of social and economic factors.


material that has been used and thrown away.

waste management

collection, disposal, or recycling of materials that people have discarded.

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