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. Engage students’ prior knowledge about plastic waste in the environment.
  • Show students each of the images from the article, For Animals Plastic Is Turning the Ocean Into a Minefield.
  • Facilitate a think-pair-share discussion about what might happen over time as plastic becomes part of the marine ecosystem. Lead them to consider the impacts of plastics on the environment as it breaks into increasingly small pieces over time.

2. Orient students to the goal of the policy proposal project.

  • Have students get into their policy proposal project groups. Remind them that they are learning about the problem of plastic pollution so that they can launch a policy campaign to reduce plastic pollution in the community.
  • In this activity, each group member will learn about a different type of environmental impact from plastic. Students will share their learning with the group to develop an evidence-based draft of a problem statement for the policy proposal.  

3. Have students read to learn about different impacts of plastic pollution on the environment.

  • After reading, students share and discuss their notes with a partner who read the same article. Give students a few minutes to update their notes based on this partner discussion.
  • After discussing, group members return to their proposal groups and share:
      • What surprised you about this article?
      • What are three important facts that this article taught you?
      • What is one connection between the article’s content and your community?
  • After students have shared with their groups, conduct a class discussion by asking students:
      • How do plastics of different sizes impact the environment differently?
      • What kinds of policy changes might be able to reduce different sizes of plastic in the environment (e.g., large plastic entanglement of marine life, ingesting smaller plastics, and invisible plastics in the air and soil)?

4. Assign students the task of writing their problem statement for the policy proposal.

  • Review the Plastic Policy Project Description and Plastic Policy Proposal Brochure: Checklist and Rubric with students. These two documents were first handed out to students in the Introducing the Plastic Problem activity.
      • Have student groups read through the project description and review each component of the project, stopping to discuss and ask questions.
      • As a whole class, answer clarifying questions as needed.
      • Have student groups review each criterion of the rubric, stopping to discuss and ask questions.
      • As a whole class, answer clarifying questions as needed.
  • Next, have students draw on the notes they have taken so far to write the overarching problem statement for their policy proposal. This is a chance for students to take what they have learned about the global problem of plastic pollution and put their ideas on paper.
  • Direct students to the first section of the project description, defining the problem, and have students work on completing this section of the project by the end of the class.
  • Allow students time to work together and write their problem statements.
  • Collect their problem statements when students are finished.


Synthesize the content learned in this lesson, The Plastic Problem, to write their problem statement about plastic pollution. Use the rubric and the checklist to guide the writing of the statement.

Subjects & Disciplines

  • Conservation
  • Social Studies

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Explain various ways that the environment is affected by different sizes of plastic waste.
  • Use evidence to write a synthesis statement of the problem of plastic pollution.

Teaching Approach

  • Project-based learning

Teaching Methods

  • Jigsaw
  • Reading
  • Writing

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Geography Standards

  • Standard 18:  How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future.

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.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

Materials You Provide

  • Handout: Plastic Policy Proposal Brochure: Checklist and Rubric
  • Handout: Plastic Policy Proposal Description

Required Technology

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

Physical Space

  • Classroom


  • Small-group learning
  • Small-group work

Background Information

Many different types of animals, both terrestrial and aquatic, are affected by encountering and ingesting plastic. Large plastics are more likely to entangle animals but can be broken apart into small pieces by the sun and mechanical forces (i.e., waves). These smaller pieces and particles are readily available to small animals for ingestion. Plastics have been documented in numerous wild animals, including fish, shellfish, worms, crabs, birds, and whales.

The impact of plastic reaches beyond its physical structure. Plastic is a leading source of pollution and acts as a sponge and a transportation vector for persistent toxic chemicals in the environment. Once ingested, animals may absorb toxic chemicals from the plastics into their bodies. Chemically, plastics and the associated toxins can disrupt immune systems, slow growth, and may be fatal to animals. Mechanically, ingested plastics create a false sense of fullness, ultimately decreasing the amount of nutritional food animals consume. Larger bits of plastic in bodies of water like fishing rope can facilitate what is known as “ghost fishing,” which is when stray plastic entangles and kills fish and nearby scavengers.

Not only are bodies of water affected by different sizes of plastic, it seems to be inescapable as it is now found to be polluting our air and soil. Microplastics are in our farming soil, and a recent study collected microplastic data that found it to be even in the air of the most remote places in the world. The reality of ubiquitous plastic is here.



environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.




garbage, refuse, or other objects that enter the coastal or ocean environment.

marine ecosystem

community of living and nonliving things in the ocean.

wild animal

animal that is not domesticated or trained to live safely around humans.


organisms living in a natural environment.