Plastics: From Pollution to Solutions unit driving question: How can humans solve our plastic problem in the ocean?

Plastics, Plastics Everywhere lesson driving question: How do plastics get into and move around the ocean?

1. Activate students’ prior knowledge by posing a deceptively simple question: What is plastic, and where does it come from?

  • Instruct publishing teams to work together to brainstorm a list of everyday items made of plastics. Have teams share their lists with the whole class, highlighting points of agreement, disagreement, and uncertainty.

  • Once the class list is complete, instruct teams to write their own definition of plastics. Emphasize that this definition can and should change as they learn new information.

  • After teams share their definitions, ask a final question to activate students’ prior knowledge about the topic of the video they will watch in Step two: Where do all the plastics come from? (Student answers will vary; take care not to correct inaccurate responses, as the upcoming video will provide information.)

2. Deepen students’ understanding of plastics with an explanatory video.

3. Conduct a plastics audit in the classroom in order to understand the extent to which the modern world relies on plastics.

  • Distribute the Classroom Plastics Audit handout. Make sure each team selects a certain area of the classroom in which to search for plastics, as described on the handout.

  • Caution students that they may not always be able to tell if a material is a type of plastic or not. Plastics can often look and feel similar to rubber, fabric, foam, glass, wood, or metal. Some materials (including treated paper products) that don’t look or feel like plastic may have a plastic coating or lining. Students can share their uncertainties with the class and discuss whether they think questionable materials should be classified as plastics or not.

  • Explain the difference between single-use and durable plastics: single-use, or disposable, plastics are designed to be used once and then thrown in the trash, whereas durable plastics are designed to be used many times.

  • After students have completed a comprehensive list of the plastics in their designated area, ask:

    • Did the amount of plastics in our classroom surprise you?

    • Were there any materials that sparked debate in your team about whether they were made of plastic or not?

    • What do you think will happen to all of this plastic? Where will it be 10 years from now, or 100 years from now?

    • If you collected all of your plastic trash for a day, how much space would it take up? What if you did this for a week, a month, or a year?

  • In conclusion, remind students that their magazine will contain an explanation of what plastics are, how they are made, and how they are used.

4. Facilitate a jigsaw reading activity about sources and impacts of ocean plastic.

  • Prior to the conclusion of the jigsaw activity, remind students that they are responsible for sharing information about their jigsaw resource with their publishing team. This information should help their publishing team refine their Ocean Plastics Movement Model.

  • If some groups finish their Reading Guides before others, those groups can begin updating their Ocean Plastics Movement Model with the new information they have learned.

  • When the Reading Guides are complete, use the Reading Guides Answer Key to assess students’ understanding. 

  • After assessment, Reading Guides should be placed in each publishing team’s folder, where they can be consulted when publishing teams are working on other elements of their magazines.

5. Guide students to update their Ocean Plastics Movement Models.

    • Bring students back into their publishing teams. Instruct them to take out their Ocean Plastics Movement Models. Remind students that the final version of this model will be a central part of their unit project, but it is still under development. They have now learned a lot of new information, from many different resources, which they can use to update their models.

    • Instruct students to take turns in their publishing teams sharing information from their jigsaw resources that will improve their Ocean Plastics Movement Models. While one student is sharing information about their jigsaw resource, another student in their publishing team should add drawings to the model, while a third student writes a verbal explanation.

      • Because they will continue to revise their Ocean Plastics Movement Models over the course of this unit, remind students to use pencils. In addition, having different colored pencils for successive layers of revisions and additions may prove helpful.

Informal Assessment

Students’ participation in discussions, their changing definition of plastics, their plastic audit handouts, and their Reading Guides responses all provide insights into students’ current understanding about plastics as synthetic materials that come from natural resources, with impacts on society. 

Extending the Learning

A school wide plastic waste audit is ambitious, messy, and incredibly informative! Often, an audit is used as a first step in creating a school wide plan for reducing waste. It requires time, space, materials, and significant planning and communication with students, families, administration, and custodial staff. In spite of these challenges, many schools have successfully completed school wide plastic waste audits—and your school can, too. Here are some resources that can help in your planning process.

In step four, one of the jigsaw resources, 10 Shocking Facts About Plastic Pollution, refers to incineration of plastic waste. Students reading this resource may be intrigued by incineration as a possible solution to the problem of plastic pollution. Scientists and policymakers have debated for decades whether burning plastics is any better for the environment than sending it to landfill. Meanwhile, advocates of zero waste and a circular economy would argue that our fundamental goal should be reducing the amount of plastic waste as much as possible so that none of it needs to be burned or buried at all. These four articles summarize the debate between burning or burying waste plastics.

Subjects & Disciplines

  • Chemistry
  • Earth Science
  • Experiential Learning

Teaching Approach

  • Project-based learning

Teaching Methods

  • Cooperative learning
  • Experiential learning
  • Jigsaw

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Geography Standards

  • MS-PS1-3:  Gather and make sense of information to describe that synthetic materials come from natural resources and impact society.
  • Standard 11:  The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth's surface
  • Standard 14:  How human actions modify the physical environment

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.1.A:  Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.2:  Analyze the main ideas and supporting details presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how the ideas clarify a topic, text, or issue under study.

Next Generation Science Standards

What You’ll Need

Materials You Provide

  • Vinyl or nitrile gloves for plastics audit, if students are going through trash/recycling. You can point out that these gloves are also made of plastic! (If no students have a latex allergy, you can use latex gloves instead.)

Required Technology

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

Physical Space

  • Classroom


Make sure that the classroom space is prepared for the plastics audit. Students may need to move throughout the room and move objects around to accomplish this activity. Provide time at the end of class for cleanup.


  • Jigsaw grouping
  • Small-group learning
  • Small-group work

Accessibility Notes

The video Science 101: Plastics contains a lot of high-level vocabulary. Consider introducing key terms before starting the video, and make sure that closed captioning is turned on. 

For students who would benefit from leveled text options, be sure to point them toward Jigsaw Resource C: Ocean Trash: 5.25 Trillion Pieces and Counting.

Background Information

Before “plastic” became a noun, it was an adjective referring to a material’s ability to deform without breaking. The first plastic was invented in 1869, when John Wesley Hyatt combined plant-based materials to manufacture billiard balls. Hyatt developed more than 200 patents for plastics, with applications from dentistry to photography and beyond.


Plastic is not one material, but a family of materials, including  the seven classes of recyclable plastics. What do all plastics have in common? All are synthetic: Although made from natural materials, notably the vast majority from crude oil and natural gas, plastics do not occur in nature. And they are all polymers: long chains of atoms, mostly carbon. (Silk and DNA are two naturally occurring polymers.)


The unique properties of synthetic carbon polymers make plastics both useful and harmful. Because carbon atoms bond to each other, they can form strings of nearly any length. And because carbon also bonds to many other atoms, these strings take on properties of other elements, too. Plastics (specifically thermoplastics) are moldable and recyclable because polymer chains bond to each other at low temperatures. At higher temperatures, the chains remain intact, but the weaker forces between chains break down, allowing the material to reform without losing its properties.


But these long, strong, synthetic bonds make plastics hard to break down. So the polymers that were designed to last a long time on the supermarket shelf continue to last a very long time in the ocean!

Prior Knowledge

  • None

Recommended Prior Activities



able to decompose naturally.




firmly established


process by which natural resources are extracted and removed from the earth.

fossil fuel

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.


having to do with the smallest physical unit of a substance.


compound of high molecular weight derived by the addition of many smaller molecules.


able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.


manufactured by people, not occurring naturally.


existing or seeming to exist everywhere.


able to adjust to different conditions.

Articles & Profiles