This lesson outline provides suggestions for how to use existing National Geographic resources about plastic pollution in the classroom. Choose one or more from each section to build a lesson perfect for your learners. Students will learn about the types of plastic debris that collects in the sea and how ocean currents have caused the development of phenomena like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Emphasize to the class the importance of reducing plastic pollution in the ocean. 

Topics Covered:

  • Marine debris
  • Ocean currents
  • Ocean gyre
  • Great Pacific Garbage Patch


Students will be able to…

  • provide examples of plastics that pollute the ocean and their sources.
  • describe the roles of ocean currents, like ocean gyres, in moving ocean plastic.
  • discuss the development of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and its impact on the marine environment.

Lesson Resources:

Choose a Hook: 

  • (10 minutes) As a class, make a list of examples of plastics that enter the ocean and their sources. What problems do these pollutants make for marine life?
  • (15 minutes) Use an aquarium or large glass container to simulate what plastic in the ocean may look like. Bring in to class plastic water bottles, six-ring soda-can holders, drinking straws, plastic line, etc., and drop them into the water. Swirl the water with a ruler to distribute the items evenly. Ask students to think about the effect that ocean currents would have on this debris if it were in the sea.    

Read About Plastic Pollution: 

  • (20 minutes) Read about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to learn how it developed and what impact it is having on the marine environment. 
  • (20 minutes) Read about the various types of Pollution, including a section on water pollution. 
  • (20 minutes) Marine Debris describes the different types of debris found in the ocean. It also describes the harm done to the environment as well as ways we can reduce ocean litter.
  • (20 minutes) In Walking the Watershed, learn about Explorer Shannon Switzer as she travels along a San Diego river to the ocean to find out why the ocean is becoming so polluted with plastics.   
  • (20 minutes) What is an Ocean Gyre and how does it contribute to ocean pollution? Read this article to find out. 

One way we learn about ocean plastic is through understanding how plastic collects and moves in the ocean. Conduct an exploration of this phenomenon by utilizing the following resources: 

  • (15 minutes) As a class complete the Mapping Ocean Currents, where students learn how ocean water moves, carrying plastics far from their origins.
  • (1 hour over a week) Find out how much garbage can be generated in a week by a single family and connect that information to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Perils of Plastic activity.  
  • (1 hour) Use The Tremendous Travels of Trash activity to learn how pollutants enter the water and reach the ocean.

Choose an assessment: 

  • (5 minutes) Use the Kahoot! to assess what students know about ocean plastic. 
  • (10 minutes) Ask students to write a letter to a relative, explaining what they learned about ocean plastic. 

Associated Standards National

(MS-ESS2-4) Develop a model to describe the cycling of water through Earth's systems driven by energy from the sun and the force of gravity.

(MS-ESS3-1Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for how the uneven distributions of Earth's mineral, energy, and groundwater resources are the result of past and current geoscience processes. 

(MS-ESS3-3) Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing human impact on the environment.