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Ocean Plastic

Plastic pollution is reaching a critical point.

Shorebirds in polluted water in Sri Lanka

Shorebirds in polluted water in Sri Lanka

Photograph by Ami Vitale

Plastic is ubiquitous in our everyday lives. Some plastics we can reuse or recycle—and many play important roles in areas like medicine and public safety—but other items, such as straws, are designed for only one use. In fact, more than 40 percent of plastic is used only once before it is thrown away, where it lingers in the environment for a long, long time. It often breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, called microplastics, which can be ingested by both animals and people. Fortunately, there are things we can do to help—like stop using plastic bags, straws, and bottles, recycling when we can, and disposing of waste properly.

Use these classroom resources to teach about ocean plastics and check back for more coming later this year!

Unit and Activities

Check out this unit on ocean ecosystems and activities on the impacts of plastics in that environment.

Perils of Plastic

Perils of Plastic  

(Activity, Grades 6-12) Students learn about the world’s largest “landfill,” make a connection to their own lives, and calculate how much trash they generate in a week, a year, and ten years.

Marine Ecology, Human Impacts, and Conservation

Marine Ecology, Human Impacts, and Conservation  

(Unit, Grades 9-12) This project-based learning experience culminates with students using their new knowledge about marine ecology and human impacts on the ocean to create and propose a management plan for a marine protected area.

The Tremendous Travels of Trash

The Tremendous Travels of Trash  

(Activity, Grades 6-8) Students watch demonstrations and a video to understand where water travels when it goes down a drain and how water pollutants impact a larger area. 

Mapping Ocean Currents

Mapping Ocean Currents  

(Activity, Grades 3-8) Students apply information about the ocean conveyor belt to predict the movement of a spill of rubber ducks in the ocean.

Geo-Inquiry: Skip the Bag, Save the Sea

This capstone video, produced as part of our Educator Certification program, highlights a teacher who used the Geo-Inquiry Process with her class to facilitate student understanding of their connection to the ocean and prove that students are not too young to make a difference.

MapMaker Interactive

Use this interactive mapping tool to help your students understand how rivers are connected to the ocean and how they can carry plastics from places inland to the sea.

MapMaker Interactive: Rivers

MapMaker Interactive: Rivers  

Rivers contribute a significant amount of plastic pollution to the ocean

Articles

Use these nonfiction articles to teach students about aspects of ocean pollution.

Urban Planning

Urban Planning  

“Cities always get bigger” has always been the rule of development, but what if your city is shrinking? What do you do with the vacant land? From bike lanes to urban gardens to new industries, learn how cities around the world are making good use of open spaces.

Walking the Watershed

Walking the Watershed  

Explorer Shannon Switzer treks one of San Diego’s longest rivers, starting in the mountains and ending in the ocean, and documents the pollutants affecting its health.

Reference

Learn more about key ocean plastic topics with these articles.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Great Pacific Garbage Patch  

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Marine debris is litter that ends up in the ocean, seas, and other large bodies of water.

marine debris

marine debris  

Marine debris is litter that ends up in oceans, seas, and other large bodies of water.

ocean gyre

ocean gyre  

A gyre is a circular ocean current formed by the Earth's wind patterns and the forces created by the rotation of the planet.

pollution

pollution  

Pollution is the introduction of harmful materials into the environment. These harmful materials are called pollutants.

How We Can Keep Plastics Out of Our Ocean

Use this short video clip to help students understand how plastics are impacting our planet and generate ideas for how we can each make a difference.

Maps

Use this map to better understand the geography of ocean plastic.

Garbage Patches

Garbage Patches  

Garbage patches are found in the calm, stable centers of many of the world's ocean gyres. Even smaller bodies of water, such as the Mediterranean and North Seas, are developing their own garbage patches along heavily trafficked shipping lanes.

Around National Geographic

Read this article from National Geographic magazine. Then take the pledge to choose the planet over single-use plastics.

The Journey of Plastic Around the Globe

The Journey of Plastic Around the Globe  

What happens to the plastic we throw out? Learn how a piece of trash can travel from land to Henderson Island, an uninhabited, remote island in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean.

Planet or Plastic?

Planet or Plastic?  

The plastic pollution problem is in plain sight. It affects us all. Together we can reduce single-use plastics and make a lasting impact. Take our pledge.

Plastics: Source to Sea

Plastics: Source to Sea  

Plastic pollution in the ocean has dire implications for all marine life as well as humans, indeed our entire planet. Read more about how the National Geographic Society is working to tackle this issue here.

Other Resources

Check out these other National Geographic programs!

Explorer Classroom

Explorer Classroom  

Transport your students from the classroom to the frontiers of exploration through live video conversations with National Geographic Explorers.

Educator Training

Educator Training  

Join the 30,000+ educators who have completed a National Geographic teacher training program.

National Geographic Bee

National Geographic Bee  

The National Geographic Bee is an annual competition designed to inspire and reward students' curiosity about the world.