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. Activate students’ knowledge of plastics in their daily lives.

  • Lead students in a class brainstorm to think about as many things made of plastic that they touched that day that they can remember. Record their ideas on chart paper. Note that students may continue to add to this list in future activities.
  • Ask students to look at the list that the class has generated and elicit their ideas about why plastic makes sense as a material to use for those items.
      • You may want to ask students to consider what these items would be like if they were made of wood, metal, or other materials to help them understand why manufacturers chose plastic for the items listed in their brainstorm. For example, what if toothbrush bristles were made of metal? What would be different about a glass or wood shampoo bottle?

2. Have students inventory the plastic used in their classroom.

  • Divide the room into a grid (5’ x 6’ units that go to the ceiling) and assign pairs or a small group of students to each unit of the grid.
  • Direct each group to quickly look around their grid unit and call out the first piece of plastic they see. Model for students writing those items on sticky notes (one sticky note per item).
  • Distribute sticky notes and give students five minutes to identify and record every item of plastic they can find in their grid unit.

3. Have students create a bar graph to visualize the data gathered by the teams.

  • Inform students that they will now be creating a bar graph so they can see which types of plastics are in their classroom.
  • Ask teams to group their sticky notes into like items based on the purpose of the plastic (e.g., food packaging, furniture, electronics).
  • Draw an x- and y-axis on the board. Label the x-axis “Types of Plastic Items” and label the y-axis with “Number of Plastic Items.” Then, add the following categories of plastic on the x-axis:
      • Food packaging
      • Electronics
      • Furniture
      • Fixtures
      • Clothing
      • School
      • Supplies
      • Other
  • Have students place their sticky notes along an x-axis on the board, creating a bar graph.

4. Facilitate students’ analysis of the data with a debrief discussion.

  • Ask students what this data tells them about the plastic used in the classroom:
      • What kind of plastic is used the most? The least?
      • What plastics do the students bring in?
      • What is provided by the school?
  • Ask students to describe some of the differences in the characteristics of the plastics found in different categories (possible responses include: plastic in clothing is very thin and flexible, but furniture is hard and thick; some plastic is clear, and some is opaque; food packaging is sometimes mixed with paper, and electronic plastic is sometimes mixed with metal).
  • For each category, ask students:
      • When you do discard this plastic (quickly or after you’ve used it for a long time), how would you get rid of it (garbage, recycle, donation)?
      • What effects do you think this plastic might have when you discard it?
      • What are the implications for our school and community?
      • Can you think of any alternatives to this plastic that would serve the same or very similar purpose?

 5. Introduce students to the problem of plastic pollution and their project.

  • Introduce the video, The Reality of Plastics, by reiterating that there are many fantastic uses for plastic, but the amazing properties of plastic come at a substantial environmental cost.
  • Tell students that they will be taking two-column notes as they watch. In one column, they should take notes on the facts that they learn from the video. In the other column, they note why those facts are important. In the second column, they should also note any opinions, thoughts, reactions, connections, or questions they have.
  • Watch the video The Reality of Plastics (2:08).
  • After the video, have students discuss with a partner:
      • What are two facts you learned from the video?
      • Why are these facts important to you?
  • Have several pairs share their discussion with the class.

6. Introduce students to the project.

  • Tell students that they have an opportunity to do something about the plastic problem. They are going to answer the question asked in the video, What solutions do you have to reduce the impact of plastic in our world?, and use their learning to develop a policy proposal for plastic waste reduction in the community.
  • Explain that they are going to learn about the impact of plastic on their community, collect data to use as evidence, identify solutions, and create a campaign for change. The class will vote on a proposal to be presented to actual decision-makers who can implement the solutions.
  • Project and distribute the Plastic Policy Proposal Description and Plastic Policy Proposal Brochure: Checklist and Rubric handouts to students for them to understand the criteria that they will be working toward.
  • Have students read through the project description and rubric and identify areas of confusion. Then, with a partner, have students summarize the criteria on the rubric.
  • Answer clarifying questions.

7. Have students complete the exit ticket.

  • On a piece of paper, have students respond to the following questions based on the data collected in this activity:
      • What are some ways that plastic has been useful for our class?
      • What are some ways that plastic is a problem?
      • What are some ways that our class is contributing to the plastic problem?
  • Collect the exit ticket and review responses.

Informal Assessment

Identify the plastic items in the room and accurately represent the data on the class graph.

Based on the analysis in the debrief discussion, describe implications for the class’s plastic use in their exit ticket.

Extending the Learning

Students keep a “Plastics Use” journal for a week, tracking every bit of plastic they use, noting whether and how they discard that plastic. Then, students research where each type of plastic goes in their community (e.g., to the landfill, recycling center, into the environment as pollution).

Subjects & Disciplines

  • Conservation
  • Social Studies

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Collect, represent, and analyze data to understand the use of plastic in their classroom.

Teaching Approach

  • Project-based learning

Teaching Methods

  • Brainstorming
  • Discussions
  • Research

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Geography Standards

  • Standard 14:  How human actions modify the physical environment

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

  • D2.Geo.3.6-8:  Use paper-based and electronic mapping and graphing techniques to represent and analyze spatial patterns of different environmental and cultural characteristics.

What You’ll Need

Materials You Provide

  • Sticky notes

Required Technology

  • Internet Access: Required
  • Tech Setup: 1 computer per classroom, Monitor/screen, Projector

Physical Space

  • Classroom


Students need access to the chalk or whiteboard, or a wall, to post their sticky notes and view all of the sticky notes from the class.


  • Large-group instruction
  • Large-group learning

Accessibility Notes

Students with mobility issues will need to be able to access a unit of the classroom clear of obstacles to do the inventory exercise.

Background Information

Plastic is prevalent in our everyday lives. It is a low-cost and durable material, making it a practical choice for production in many fields such as medicine, manufacturing, and technology. More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually. Not only do we use plastic daily, we often throw it away. The problem with plastic waste is that it does not break down like materials found in nature. As we continue to use new plastics on a regular basis, we contribute to a growing problem of plastic pollution as it accumulates in the waste stream.

Prior Knowledge

  • None

Recommended Prior Activities

  • None



harmful chemicals in the atmosphere.

bar graph

graph using parallel bars of varying lengths to compare and contrast data.


chemical material that can be easily shaped when heated to a high temperature.


set of actions or rules.


introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

water pollution

introduction of harmful materials into a body of water.

Articles & Profiles