This lists the logos of programs or partners of NG Education which have provided or contributed the content on this page. Program National Geographic Preserve Our Planet

  • 1. Build background.
    Explain the following to students: Over a lifetime, each American throws away nearly 15 tons of packaging. Much of this ends up in the oceans, and much of it is plastic. As plastic ages it breaks into pieces called “nurdles” or “mermaid tears.” These pieces make their way into the food chain and can sicken or kill wildlife. Show students the map of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Explain to students that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area that covers an estimated five million square miles of ocean waters—an area the size of the United States, Mexico, and Central America combined. The trash is carried and trapped by a system of surface currents called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Almost 80% of the trash is plastic and carried from the shores of Asia and the Americas.

    2. Introduce the week-long activity.
    Tell students that they are going to collect their recyclable trash for a week. Students should bring in “clean” trash only. Bottles and cans should be rinsed and dried. All paper, plastic, and metals should be clean.

    3. Set up an area of the classroom for collection.
    Set aside an area of the classroom for students to put their trash over the course of the week.

    4. Weigh and calculate trash.
    After one week, have students measure and weigh the accumulated trash. Then ask students to calculate:

    • how much trash they generated in one week
    • how much trash they would generate in one year
    • how much trash they would generate in ten years


    5. Have students reflect on their experience.
    Ask: Why is plastic harmful to the environment? What could people do to produce less trash? Ask students to share what they learned from the activity.

    Informal Assessment

    Rate students on a scale of one to five based on the following components:

    • participated in a classroom discussion about plastic trash
    • contributed clean, recyclable trash to the class collection
    • participated in the “weigh-in” of collected trash
    • extrapolated one week’s worth of recyclable trash to a year and ten years
    • made a connection about personal consumption and how the waste each of us generates can have a negative impact on the environment

    Extending the Learning

    Go to the National Geographic Society website to find out where you can get the Human Footprint DVD.

  • Subjects & Disciplines

    Learning Objectives

    Students will:

    • describe the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and how it was created
    • collect their recyclable trash for one week
    • measure and weigh their accumulated trash
    • calculate how much trash they generate over time

    Teaching Approach

    • Learning-for-use

    Teaching Methods

    • Discussions
    • Hands-on learning

    Skills Summary

    This activity targets the following skills:

    • Critical Thinking Skills
      • Analyzing
      • Applying
      • Understanding

    Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

    NCTM Principles and Standards for School Mathematics

    National Geography Standards

    • Standard 14:  How human actions modify the physical environment
  • What You’ll Need

    Materials You Provide

    Physical Space


    Other Notes

    Ideally, students will collect their recyclable trash over one week.

  • Background Information

    The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is a collection of trash covering an estimated five million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. The trash is carried and trapped by a system of surface currents called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

    Prior Knowledge

    • None

    Recommended Prior Activities

    • None


    Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    food chain Noun

    group of organisms linked in order of the food they eat, from producers to consumers, and from prey, predators, scavengers, and decomposers.

    Encyclopedic Entry: food chain
    Great Pacific Garbage Patch Noun

    area of the North Pacific Ocean where currents have trapped huge amounts of debris, mostly plastics.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Great Pacific Garbage Patch