1 hr 15 mins

The unit launches with students describing their favorite belonging and considering the question: Where do the raw materials come from, and where will they ultimately end up? Resources about mining and landfills expand their understanding of material life cycles, and a video introduces the concept of a circular economy. Finally, students learn about the unit project challenge.


Closing the Loop: Toward a Circular Economy Unit driving question: How can we make our economy more circular, and why does it matter? 

The Circle of Stuff Lesson driving question: How can a circular economy minimize harm to the environment and human health?


  1. Elicit students’ stories about their favorite belonging. Use a flowchart to have them consider the materials that it is made of, and where those materials go when the belonging is “thrown away.”
  • Ask students to close their eyes and imagine their favorite belonging. It may be an article of clothing, an electronic device, a piece of artwork, a book, or something completely different.
    • Ask: What is it made out of? (Responses will vary.)
    • Further probe students’ thinking by asking: Where do these materials come from? (Responses will vary.)
    • Explain that in this unit, students will explore the Materials Economy—how things are made, how they get to us, and where they go when we are done using them.
  • Distribute the And Before That?” Flowchart.
    • Direct students to write or draw their favorite belonging in the circle.
    • Have them write or draw two of the materials that make up their favorite belonging in the next two boxes.
      • Especially since there are likely more than two materials that make up the belonging, encourage students to select two of the materials with which they are most familiar.
    • Then, one step at a time, have students trace the history of these materials back as far as they can. (Possible responses:
      • My favorite belonging is my diary. It is made of paper and ink. The paper came from a paper factory, and before that, it came from a pulping plant. Before that, it came from a log, and before that, it came from a tree in the forest.
      • My favorite belonging is my sneakers. They are made from fabric and plastic. The plastic comes from a factory, and before that, it came from an oil refinery. Before that, it came from oil that was deep underground.)
    • Students may never have previously considered where products in their everyday lives come from, and they may not know where to begin. If they get stuck, prompt them to follow the steps below, emphasizing that the goal is to start thinking about where products come from, rather than correctly identifying the materials and their sources:
      • Ask a classmate for help.
      • If your classmate doesn’t know, take an educated guess.
      • If you can’t think of an educated guess, write “I need to do more research.”
    • Once complete, have students share their work with a partner. Their partner can also help provide missing information if the student was unable to fill in any of their steps.
    • Next, distribute and have students complete the “And After That?” Flowchart in the same fashion. (Possible responses:
      • After I can no longer use my diary, I will keep it in a box under my bed and never share it with anyone. After that, it will be recycled in the recycling bin. After that, it will go to the recycling plant, and after that, it will be recycled into a new book for someone else to buy.
      • After I can no longer use my sneakers, I will give them to my younger sibling. After that, they will probably go into the trash can. After that, the trash truck will pick them up and take them to the landfill, where they will stay.)
    • Once complete, have students share with a different partner.
  1. Use an infographic to define the linear economy, and have students identify how it applies to their belongings.
  • Elicit students’ ideas about how they define economy and what it has to do with their “And Before That?” Flowcharts. Build on their thinking to provide a student-friendly definition of economy as a system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
  • Display the Linear Economy vs. Circular Economy infographic.
    • Explain that most of our economy is linear. This doesn’t mean that everything travels in a perfectly straight line, but it does mean that most materials are extracted, processed, distributed, used, and then thrown “away.” In the United States, the majority of materials that are thrown “away” end up in landfills, where the materials cannot return back into the economy; hence the term “linear.”
    • Ask: What are examples of resource extraction from your “And Before That?” Flowchart? (Possible responses: Cutting down trees; Drilling for oil; Mining copper.)
    • Ask: What are examples of production from your “And Before That?” Flowchart? (Possible responses: Taking the trees to a lumber mill, where they are turned into boards; transporting oil to a refinery, where it is separated into different chemicals; taking copper to a factory, where it is made into wires.)
    • Ask: What are examples of distribution from your “And Before That?” Flowchart? (Possible responses: Materials are transported from factories to stores by truck, ship, or airplane.)
    • Explain that the step of consumption is where consumers like us use the object. Sometimes, as implied by the term “consumption,” the material is not able to be reused in an economic sense, as in the case of food (which is converted to energy in our bodies). With more durable goods, the object is used, but still exists, although it may be damaged or in less-than-new condition.
    • Ask: What are examples of waste from your graphic organizers? (Possible responses: I give my clothes to a younger relative; I throw my broken toys in the trash.)
    • Ask: When we put an object in the trash, we often say we’re throwing it “away.” But what does that really mean? Where is “away”? (Possible responses: Sometimes people throw things away as litter, and then it stays in the environment—in streets, in parks, into rivers and the ocean; it means you throw it in the trash can and the trash truck picks it up; the trash truck takes trash to a landfill, where it is buried; some trash is burned, which can be used for energy generation, but also contributes to climate change. This process also creates ash, which, in the United States, is usually sent to landfills.)
    • Display the phrase “There’s no such place as ‘Away.’” Ask: What do you think this means? Have students discuss in small groups before sharing their answers with the class. (Possible responses: It means that when you throw your trash somewhere, it never disappears or goes away, it just goes somewhere else.)
    • Introduce the vocabulary term conservation of matter. Conservation of matter means that matter cannot be created or destroyed. Explain that this is a scientist’s way of saying that there is no such thing as “away.”
  • Ask: How many of you told a story about your favorite belonging that looks similar to this image of the linear economy? What’s wrong with this story? (Possible responses:
    • We can’t continue to throw everything away forever. Eventually we will run out of space in landfills.
    • We can’t continue to extract resources forever. Some resources, like water and wood, are renewable, but many resources are nonrenewable, such as metals and fossil fuels.)


  1. Explore the impacts of linear resource extraction and disposal. Then, show a video to introduce the concept of a circular economy.
  • Prepare students’ understanding as they read about resource extraction and waste disposal, either individually or in partner groups: have half the class read the encyclopedic entry, Mining, and the other half read the encyclopedic entry, Landfills.
    • While they are reading, have students take notes on negative environmental and health impacts they learn about each process.
    • Circulate while students are working to ensure their understanding and to probe their thinking.
    • When both groups have finished reading and have a complete list of negative impacts from each process, have the two groups come together to create a shared class list of negative impacts. Record this list with the title “Harmful Impacts of the Linear Economy” on a shared document that is visible in the classroom. 
  • Lead a class brainstorm about how we can address these harmful impacts of the linear economy and alternative ways to approach resource use and disposal. Segue from students’ ideas, which likely will include recycling and reuse, to the idea of the circular economy by showing the video Re-thinking Progress: The Circular Economy (3:48).
  • Display the full Linear Economy vs. Circular Economy infographic. Ask: How is a circular economy different from a linear economy? Have students discuss in pairs before sharing their answers with the class. (Possible responses from the video:
      • The circular economy requires less resource extraction because materials are recycled, so it decreases environmental impacts associated with resource extraction.
      • The circular economy requires less waste disposal because materials are recycled, so it decreases environmental impacts associated with waste disposal.)
  • Prepare to segue to the unit’s focus on e-waste and lithium-ion batteries by asking students about which electronics in their lives could become part of the circular economy.
    • Draw from the video shown previously, as well as students’ favorite belongings from Step 1, focusing in on responses related to electronic devices that use lithium-ion batteries.
  1.  Introduce the unit driving question and final product of the unit project.
  •  Display the unit guiding question: How can we make our economy more circular, and why does it matter? Distribute or provide access to the Final Product Checklist and Rubric.
    • Explain that the final product for this unit will be a video challenge for students to create and share on social media. The aim of the challenge will be to encourage the target audience to take part in the circular economy by recycling the lithium-ion batteries found in devices such as cell phones, also known as e-waste. Students will work in groups of 2-4 to create these videos, which should be 60-90 seconds long and include information about the harm caused by the linear economy and the solutions offered by a circular economy. The videos will also include information about how, when, and where to recycle electronic waste, with an emphasis on National Battery Day on February 18 and International E-Waste Day on October 14.
    • Provide students time to read over the rubric and answer any questions they have about it. Then, have students store the rubric in their project folder because they will need to refer to it several times over the course of the unit as they complete their work.
    • Finally, facilitate the creation of a Know and Need to Know chart to provide students a road map of guiding questions that will lead them to a successful final product of the unit project. Use the process below to elicit and record students’ ideas and questions, which will be revisited throughout the unit.
  • Have students discuss the following questions with a partner, and then share their thoughts with the class:
    • What do we already know about making our economy more circular and recycling lithium-ion batteries?
    • What do we need to know about making our economy more circular and recycling lithium-ion batteries in order to create a successful final product of the unit project?

Informal Assessment

The “And Before That?” Flowchart and the list of mining and disposal impacts provide evidence of students' initial ideas and understanding of human impacts on the environment, as well as the sources and fates of natural resources. The Know and Need to Know chart demonstrates students’ ability to ask questions and define problems.

Extending the Learning

Challenge students to learn more about the extraction and/or waste disposal impacts of the materials in their favorite belongings. The website Material Life Cycles and the video series How It’s Made can help students pursue this line of research. Use the EPA’s Facts and Figures About Materials Waste and Recycling to further explore the data about the increasing amount of waste that is produced in the United States.

50 mins

Students dissect an infographic that illustrates the linear materials economy in order to visualize the benefits of a more circular economy. Then, they apply the traditional waste management hierarchy (reduce, reuse, and recycle) to their own lives and actions. Finally, they extend this to include the full zero-waste hierarchy with concepts such as refuse, rethink, redesign, and repair.


Closing the Loop: Toward a Circular Economy Unit driving question: How can we make our economy more circular, and why does it matter? 

The Circle of Stuff Lesson driving question: How can a circular economy minimize harm to the environment and human health?


  1. Use an infographic to help students visualize the flow of materials into and out of the global economy.
  • Ask students to close their eyes and imagine the largest object made by humans on Earth. Ideas to spur their thinking include: large airplane, skyscraper, stadium, space shuttle.
  • Modeling the same process that students engaged in about their favorite belonging in the There’s No Such Place as Away activity, elicit students’ ideas about the resources needed to make that object. Ideas to spur their thinking include: metals, fossil fuels, wood.
  • Explain that to help visualize and understand these kinds of questions about the use and consumption of objects in our lives, students will engage with an infographic about how materials flow through the global economy. Specifically, their goal will be to track minerals from extraction through disposal.      
  • Show or provide access to the infographic An X-Ray of the Global Economy. Follow the steps below to walk students through how to interpret the infographic:
    • Start at the left of the infographic, noting that there are four main resources that are extracted from the Earth: minerals (purple), ores (orange), fossil fuels (brown), and biomass (green). Elicit students’ ideas or provide definitions for each of these terms.
    • Note that all the numbers listed represent billions of tons. Therefore, start by indicating the total extracted resources: 93 billion tons. Tell the class that this means that the amount of resources extracted from the Earth every year equals approximately half the total mass of Mount Everest.
    • Indicate the words on the top of the infographic: take, process, produce, provide, societal needs, and end of use. Follow the path of minerals, one of the resource streams, from left to right along the top of the infographic. Ask: According to the infographic, how are minerals used in the economy? (Possible responses: They are used in construction; they are used to build houses.)
    • Indicate the thinner strands that branch off the main trunk of the minerals column, which connect to ores and biomass below. Ask: Why are minerals combined with other raw materials? (Possible responses: They are combined with ores to make machines, vehicles, and metal products; they are combined with biomass to make retail and trade products, health care products, services, and consumables.)
    • Indicate the arrow at the far right of the chart that points to “Accumulated global stock of long-lasting material.” Ask: What does this arrow represent? (Possible response: This arrow represents the fact that a lot of minerals and other materials are used to make buildings, which last a long time and do not immediately become part of the waste stream.)
    • Ask: According to the infographic, where else do minerals end up? (Possible responses: Dispersed into the environment as unrecoverable waste. Note: This means pollution and/or litter; Landfill; Incineration. Note: This means materials are burned to release energy; Reused resources.)
    • Ask: Does this infographic represent a linear economy, a circular economy, or something else? Have students discuss with a partner before sharing their responses. (Possible responses: Linear, because the vast majority of the materials end up as pollution or litter; circular, because 10 percent of the resources are recycled back into the economy; it’s not exactly one or the other. It’s mostly linear, but a little bit circular due to the reused resources, and the fact that a lot of the material is long-lasting and not waste.)
  • If desired, provide students additional time to engage in small groups with the infographic, tracking pathways of other extracted resources. Elicit students’ reflections, ideas, and questions that arise from doing so.


  1. Lead a discussion to invite students to consider how the waste management hierarchy applies to their everyday lives.
  • Reference the student brainstorm and findings about negative effects of resource extraction and waste disposal during the There’s No Such Place as Away activity. Remind students that, as they brainstormed and noticed with the X-Ray of the Global Economy infographic, there are many ways to reduce the harm caused by resource extraction and waste disposal. Display an image of the recycling symbol. Ask: What does this image mean? Where have you seen it before? (Possible responses: Recycle; Reduce, reuse, recycle; Seen on recycle bins and trucks, different types of recyclable containers, or advertisements reminding people to recycle.)
    • Ask: What do reduce, reuse, and recycle mean? Can you give an example of each? (Possible responses: Reduce means to use less of something. For example, if I decide to ride my bike to the store instead of driving, I reduce the amount of gasoline I use; reuse means to use something again instead of throwing it away. For example, if I have old books or toys I no longer use, I can donate them to a younger person or a charitable organization; recycle means to sort certain materials that can be used in new products instead of sending them to landfill. For example, I recycle soda bottles and cans instead of throwing them away.)
    • Have students work together in pairs to fill out The Three Rs handout. Circulate while students are working to monitor progress and provide targeted help.
    • Ask: Out of all three of these practices, which do you think would have the biggest impact for the environment and why? Have students discuss with a partner before sharing with the class. (Possible answers: Reducing would have the biggest impact, because the best way to eliminate waste is to stop creating waste in the first place. This also means that new materials don’t have to be extracted, which reduces impacts at both ends of the linear economy; reusing would have the biggest impact, because some things—such as books, clothes, reusable water bottles and grocery bags—can be used over and over and over. When we reuse, we also reduce the demand for new products' recycling would have the biggest impact, because it’s easy, many things are recyclable, and everyone can do it. Recycling also decreases the need for raw material extraction.)
    • Explain that waste management professionals consider the three Rs to be a hierarchy, meaning that some practices can have a greater impact than others. In fact, the order in which we usually remember the three Rs is the order of their importance, according to experts: first, reduce; second, reuse; and last, recycle. Students may be surprised to hear that recycling is the lowest on this list, since it is the one that most people are most familiar with in their everyday lives.
    • Ask: Are there any other words beginning with re- that you would add to this waste management hierarchy? And where in the hierarchy would you place them? Have students discuss with a partner before sharing with the class.
      • Discuss any on-topic answers.


  1. Use an infographic to expand the concept of the Three Rs to include the full zero-waste hierarchy.
  • Display the Zero Waste Hierarchy infographic from Zero Waste Europe. Walk through the different parts of it as a class, collaboratively defining unfamiliar terms.
    • Ask: How is this image different from the three Rs? (Possible responses: It has more than three things that we can do; it makes the hierarchy of impact visible in its layout and design; reduce and reuse are grouped together; some of the actions on this hierarchy—such as redesigning—are not things that individuals can easily do, but they can be done by companies and governments.)
    • Ask: How is this image related to the concept of a circular economy? (Possible Responses: We need to use the practices from the Zero Waste Hierarchy to make our economy more circular; the Zero Waste Hierarchy helps us decide which pieces of the circular economy will make the biggest difference. For example, refusing and redesigning can have bigger impacts than recycling; this image also reminds us that we should work to minimize wastes, although we may never be able to eliminate them completely.)
    • Explain that reducing, reusing, and recycling are important, but they can only get us so far. To make our economy truly circular, or zero waste as described in this infographic, we need to do even more than that. We also need to think about waste management as a hierarchy where some practices are more important than others, because they have bigger impacts. Emphasize that many of the high-impact practices on the hierarchy may be challenging to take on as individuals; governments and companies must be held responsible for changing their practices to have broader impacts.
    • Ask: According to this infographic, what are the most important R-actions with the biggest impacts? (Possible responses: refuse, rethink, and redesign.)
    • Ask: Why do you think these actions are considered to have an even bigger impact than reducing, reusing, and recycling? Have students discuss in small groups before sharing answers with the class. (Possible responses: Refusing is a way of reducing completely. If I refuse plastic straws and plastic bags, it’s even better than reducing because I don’t use any, and other people may decide to refuse as well; rethinking has a big impact because many people don’t consider the impacts of their consumption and waste habits. When people rethink their habits, they can make decisions that have less impact on the environment, and can even save them time and money as well; redesigning is important because individual people cannot solve all the problems of the linear economy. When products and systems are redesigned, it makes it easier for individuals to make good decisions about reducing and recycling.)
    • Ask: Do you agree with this ordering of the hierarchy? Why or why not? Have students discuss with a partner before sharing with the class.
    • Distribute the Zero Waste Hierarchy: Beyond the Three Rs handout, prompt students to write a list of actions they can take in their own lives to apply the zero waste hierarchy.
      • Consider having students share out their ideas for how to reduce their environmental impact according to the zero waste hierarchy.
      • Have students store the completed Beyond the Three Rs handout in their project folders.


Informal Assessment

Students' responses on their Beyond the Three Rs handouts and their contributions to class discussions provide evidence that they understand the more nuanced aspects of circular economies and how to apply to their own lives.

Extending the Learning

For students who express an interest in learning more about zero-waste principles, share resources like "Zero Waste: A Beginner’s Guide," Zero Waste ClassroomNOAA’s Students for Zero Waste Week, and the Post-Landfill Action Network. Take care, however, to help students recognize the nuanced ways that race, class, and ability influence the accessibility of lifestyle choices related to minimizing consumption and waste. As applicable, use the following resources and ideas to support students in using their privilege to support all communities in becoming more sustainable: "Use Your Privilege & Make Zero Waste Accessible," "Environmental Racism is a Zero Waste Issue Too," "Living A 'Zero-Waste Life' Is Only Possible If You're Privileged."

1 hr 40 mins

The whole class reads a case study of a circular economic system, using a structured handout to collaboratively unpack the components involved. Then, students partner to read case studies of other successful circular economic systems. They analyze the components of their case studies, identifying strengths and areas for further improvement.


Closing the Loop: Toward a Circular Economy Unit driving question: How can we make our economy more circular, and why does it matter? 

The Circle of Stuff Lesson driving question: How can a circular economy minimize harm to the environment and human health?


  1. Use a case study of a successful circular economic system to discuss the benefits of circular economies.
  • Ask: We have learned a lot about the idea of a circular economy, and why it’s less harmful than a linear economy. But is a circular economy really possible, or is it just a dream? Can you think of any real-world examples that you would call circular economies? (Responses will vary.)
  • Explain that in today’s activity, students will learn about several real-world examples, or case studies, of circular economies. None of them are perfect, and all of them have some impacts and wastes, but they are all moving in the direction of more circularity.
  • Introduce the National Geographic Explorer Arthur Huang and his important redesign work by showing the EcoArk video (1:56). Then distribute the article "Turning Trash Into Treasure" and guide students through collaboratively reading it as a class.
  • Lead a quick debrief discussion to elicit students’ initial reactions to the article, emphasizing the connections to the circular economy concepts discussed in the previous unit activities.


  1. Model the process of analyzing circular economy components from the case study.
  • Display the Circular Economy Analyzer and distribute one copy to each student. Fill in the word “Polli-bricks” in the blank at the top of the page.
    • Inform students that they will fill out three of these handouts during this unit, including one that will be part of their final product. This one will be completed as a class.
    • Ask: Does this image look more like a linear economy or a circular economy? (Possible responses: It looks more like a linear economy because it includes resource extraction and waste; it looks more like a circular economy because it is in the shape of a circle and includes steps, like design and recycling.)
      • Tell students that no economic system is perfectly circular because there will always be some wastes created and some raw materials that need to be extracted. The goal is to minimize those impacts and to get as close to a circular economy as possible.
  • Point to the arrow that says “Production.” Ask: What does the article say about how polli-bricks are produced? (Possible responses: Plastic trash is chopped up and melted down into polli-bricks; a coating helps protect against fire and weather.)
    • Write this information in the corresponding arrow for Production.
  • Point to the arrow that says “Use/Reuse.” Ask: What does the article say about how polli-bricks are used? (Possible responses: The building is made to withstand earthquakes, typhoons, and heat waves; the polli-bricks protect people inside the EcoArk from wind, rain, heat, and cold.)
    • Write this information in the corresponding arrow for Use/Reuse.
  • Point to the arrow that says “Recycling.” Ask: What does the article say about recycling? (Possible responses: The polli-bricks are made from recycled plastic bottles; the bricks could be recycled again using the Trashpresso process of shredding, washing, drying, melting, and molding.)
    • Write this information in the corresponding arrow for Recycling.
  • Ask: Are there any other sections of this analyzer that we could fill in based on the article or based on your own prior knowledge? (Possible responses: In the Design arrow, we could write that Huang and his team invented a way to reshape and strengthen melted plastic chips into building blocks; these polli-bricks have grooves so they fit together and lock in place securely; air in the bricks insulates the building and keeps energy use low.
In the Collection arrow, we could write that one and a half million plastic bottles were required to build a nine-story building.
In the Wastes arrow, we could write that the EcoArk and the Trashpresso machine both run on renewable energy, so they do not produce any carbon emissions as waste.)
  • Ask: Are there any areas of this template that we cannot fill in based on the information we have? (Possible responses: There is no information about how polli-bricks are distributed; there is no information about how polli-bricks are repaired; there is no information about how the raw material for plastic is extracted.)
    • Fill in any blank arrows with the phrase “More research is needed.”
  • Lead students in collaboratively answering the analysis questions on the second page of the Circular Economy Analyzer.
  • Have students store this template in their project folder. Tell them that in the next activity they will work with a partner to fill out another template based on a different case study, and they can use this example to help them.
  1. Provide circular economy case studies for students to analyze in small groups.
  • Emphasize that students may now appreciate how necessary it is for our society to transition to a more circular economy in all aspects of life. Fortunately, many people are already working on solving this problem for all kinds of products, from food and clothing to furniture and transportation, and beyond.
  • Organize students into pairs and distribute a laptop or tablet and two copies of the Circular Economy Analyzer to each pair.
    • Distribute or provide access to the Circular Economy Case Studies document; students can either choose one that sounds interesting to them, or you can assign so that each case study is reviewed by at least one group.
    • Have groups read through their case study and use the information from the case study to complete both sides of their template.
    • Caution students that their case study may not include all of the information included on the analyzer handout. For some parts, they may need to do more research as time allows. Some of the case studies have links to pages where more information can be found. For other case studies, students may need to make an educated guess, or simply write “More research is needed” on their handout.


  1. Assess students’ progress toward understanding the principles of circular economics by having them share their case study analyses.
  • In each pair, have one student stay in place to present their case study, while the other student conducts a gallery walk around the room to learn about other groups’ case studies. Circulate while students are presenting to understand key themes across their presentations. Press students to identify how the circular economy of their case study helps to minimize negative environmental and human health impacts.
  • After a few minutes, have students switch roles.
  • Ask: What similarities and differences did you notice among the different case studies?
    • Emphasize how there are common themes, but different types of products and systems require creative solutions to make them more circular than linear.
  • Now that students have learned about several different case studies of circular economies, revisit the Know and Need to Know chart from the activity There’s No Such Place As Away. Ask: What changes can we make to this chart now?
    • Key ideas from this activity and the handouts from the Beyond the Three Rs activity include:
      • We now know that many circular economies require creative thinking and collaboration.
      • We now know that many of the concepts of circular economics are already familiar to consumers, such as repairing broken items, collecting scrap materials for recycling, and using apps to help people share their belongings.
    • Students’ questions for the “Need to Know” column may include:
      • We need to know what the challenges and obstacles are to improving the circular economies for lithium-ion batteries and electronic waste.
      • We need to know what systems already exist to make the economy for cell phones and electronic waste more circular.
  • Have students store their completed analyzers in their project folders, which should now contain two completed analyzers as well as their Final Product Checklist and Rubric.


Informal Assessment

Students’ participation in class discussions and their responses to the analysis questions on the Circular Economy Analyzer demonstrate that they can explain the benefits of a circular economy compared to a linear economy. Their completed Circular Economy Analyzer provides evidence of their ability to evaluate design solutions that minimize environmental and human health impacts.

Extending the Learning

Have students learn about other case studies, including two designed by National Geographic Explorer Marissa Cuevas Flores: Kitcel, a biodegradable varnish made from discarded Styrofoam, and MicroTERRA, which upcycles wastewater for use in tilapia aquaculture.

Challenge students to find more information about the many environmental impacts associated with extracting petroleum, the raw material from which plastics are made. Some resources they could use to explore this topic further include: Petroleum encyclopedic entry, Science 101: Plastics; Do You Know How Plastic Is Made? From Oil to Plastic; An Ocean of Oil; and "Seven ways oil and gas drilling is bad for the environment."

Subjects & Disciplines

  • Biology
  • Conservation
  • Earth Science
  • Engineering
  • Social Studies
    • Economics


Students will:

  • Analyze real-world examples of circular economies in order to contrast a circular economy with a linear economy.
  • Explain how a circular economy is different from a linear economy.
  • Describe environmental and health impacts associated with mining and disposal.
  • Identify how the law of conservation of matter relates to the resource economy.
  • Brainstorm the origin and fate of raw materials found in everyday objects.
  • Understand the project challenge they will take on for the Closing the Loop: Toward a Circular Economy unit.
  • Interpret information from an infographic about the global economy in order to understand the need for circular economic systems.
  • Use the concept of a zero-waste hierarchy to create a list of behaviors that can reduce their own resource consumption and waste production.
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a circular economy case study, in terms of circularity and impacts on the environment and human health.

Teaching Approach

  • Project-based learning

Teaching Methods

  • Brainstorming
  • Cooperative learning
  • Discussions
  • Guided listening
  • Reading
  • Reflection
  • Visual instruction

Skills Summary

This lesson targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Geography Standards Standard 11: The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth's surface Standard 14: How human actions modify the physical environment Standard 16: The changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resourcesNational Science Education Standards DCI ESS3.A: Natural Resources: Humans depend on Earth’s land, ocean, atmosphere, and biosphere for many different resources. Minerals, fresh water, and biosphere resources are limited, and many are not renewable or replaceable over human lifetimes. These resources are distributed unevenly around the planet as a result of past geologic processes.Next Generation Science Standards Crosscutting Concept 5: Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation MS-ESS3: Earth and Human Activity:  Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment Science and Engineering Practice 1: Asking questions and defining problems Science and Engineering Practice 8: Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

What You’ll Need

Required Technology

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

Physical Space

  • Classroom


  • None


  • Large-group instruction
  • Large-group learning
  • Small-group learning
  • Small-group work

Accessibility Notes

Consider providing printed copies of the infographics and images used in this activity for students who have special vision-related needs.

Review the case studies ahead of time to preview the reading levels and strategically assign students. Strategies include: mixed-ability peer reading groups, focused reading based on the prompts and questions in the Circular Economy Analyzer, and providing scaffolding and supports for interpreting new vocabulary and concepts.

Step 1: Some students may find it helpful to see a model of a completed “And Before That?” Flowchart. Consider filling out your own copy before teaching this lesson to share with students who have trouble visualizing the origin and fate of the materials in their favorite belonging.

Step 3: The narrator in this video has a British accent which may be challenging for students to understand. Consider turning on closed captions.

Background Information

The term “circular economy” has developed and grown only since the 1970s, but the idea has been around for much longer. The concept is rooted in the guiding principles of continuing to use products and the materials of which they are made, designing processes and products that minimize waste and pollution, and regenerating natural systems, which aligns with indigenous and non-Western approaches to resource consumption.


Implementing circular economies helps to address a myriad of societal and economic issues, including the threat of resource depletion and minimizing waste production. Waste management, in particular, is often positioned as a consumer or governmental problem, but it is important to foreground how business plays a key role. Corporations are responsible for producing the majority of the world’s waste, and they also profit from it. The philosophy of the zero-waste hierarchy takes corporate responsibility into account by placing rethinking and redesigning at the top of the hierarchy. It also includes individual responsibility, not only by recycling, but also by refusing to buy unnecessary products in the first place.


To move toward more sustainable practices of global resource consumption, the concept of a circular economy can (and should!) be applied to many different types of industries, as highlighted in this lesson. In support of these kinds of innovations and broad-scale systemic changes in a variety of industries, an ideal first step is to apply some of the circular economy principles to a historically linear economy, especially for nonrenewable resources. The goal is to minimize negative environmental and health impacts and to get as close to a circular economy as possible, rather than enforcing a strict binary between circular and linear. Individuals and systems must be synergistically involved to rethink and fundamentally shift how we collectively produce, consume, and dispose of material goods in our everyday life.

Prior Knowledge

  • None

Recommended Prior Lessons

  • None


circular economy

a system of production that extends the lifespan of consumer goods by maximizing reusing and recycling, and minimizing throwing things away.


gathering used materials for recycling or waste disposal.

conservation of matter

principle that matter cannot be created or destroyed; it can only change form.


something that can be used up (consumed), such as food or fuel.


process of using goods and services.


the way something is spread out over an area.


recycling material to make a product that is of lower quality than the original.


system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.


electronic devices or their parts that have been thrown away.


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


identification of certain actions or items as having greater or lesser relative impacts.


site where garbage is layered with dirt and other absorbing material to prevent contamination of the surrounding land or water.

linear economy

system where raw materials are collected and transformed into products, which are eventually discarded as waste.


inorganic material that has a characteristic chemical composition and specific crystal structure.


process of extracting ore from the Earth.

natural resource

a material that humans take from the natural environment to survive, to satisfy their needs, or to trade with others.


deposit in the Earth of minerals containing valuable metal.


making or manufacturing of a product from parts or raw materials.

raw material

matter that needs to be processed into a product to use or sell.


to clean or process in order to make suitable for reuse.


in the zero-waste hierarchy, modifying how products are produced, sold, and how waste is managed.


to recycle one or more items to create an object that is worth more than the original product.


material that has been used and thrown away.

zero waste

process and philosophy that advocates for redesigning products and patterns of consumption with the goal of producing no waste.