Earth Day Lesson: Plastics and You

We use plastics all the time. So often, in fact, that they’re practically invisible to us. In this lesson, students keep a log of their plastic use, take action to decrease it, and explore systemic approaches (like bag bans and bag taxes) to minimize use of plastics.  

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • keep a record of their plastics use
  • brainstorm ways to decrease their use of plastics
  • choose and implement at least one action step they will take to reduce their plastics use
  • brainstorm systemic solutions to excessive use of plastics, such as bag bans, bag taxes, and banning the sale of bottled water




Write the word "plastic" on the board and tell students that in this lesson they will be gathering data about plastic use and exploring ways to decrease it, including changing their personal behaviors and advocating for larger-scale change.
Have students read—or read aloud to students—the Background Reading below so they can learn more about how much plastic we use and the impact that it has on the natural environment.  After the reading, provide an opportunity for students to ask questions or share comments about it.



Background Reading: Drowning in Plastic

We’re drowning in plastic! Plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic wrapping on almost everything we buy. Plastic keyboards, plastic phone cases, even plastic furniture.

Just how much plastic are we humans using? Let’s take a look at some numbers.

The Data
Globally, people use 100 million tons of plastic a year. In the 1950s, people used only 5 million tons per year. [1]
Consider the ubiquitous plastic bag. How many of them do we use? [2]

  • 1 trillion plastic bags a year globally
  • 1 million plastic bags every minute
  • 100 billion plastic bags in the United States every year
  • 15 plastic bags by a family on every trip to the supermarket
And what about plastic bottles? How many of those do we use?
  • 190 billion drinks in plastic bottles in the United States every year
  • 2.5 million plastic bottles in the United States every hour[3]
  • 500 plastic bottles per U.S. household per year[4]
  • 2 plastic drink containers a day per person in the United States[5]
The Impact
This huge amount of plastic affects our world in dangerous ways.
First of all, remember that plastic doesn’t decompose quickly. A plastic bag, for example, can endure in the environment for 1,000 years. Think about that. A thousand years ago it was the 1100s! So the plastic waste we generate today isn’t going to go away. It’s going to pile up on land and float in the oceans. (For more information about the impact of plastic waste in the ocean, see these Teachable Moment lessons.)
  • Only about 1 in 5 plastic bottles gets recycled. That means that 4 out of 5 go into landfills.[6]
  • Only about 5% of plastic bags get recycled.
  • More than 90% of humans on the planet have chemical residue from plastics in their bodies.[7]
  • 86% of debris in the ocean is plastic.[8]
  • More than 1 million birds and marine mammals die from ingesting or getting tangled in plastic every year.[9

Record Your Plastics!

Ask students to begin thinking about what they use that is made of plastic or has plastic in it.

Explain that they are going to keep a record for one day of the plastic that they use. Distribute this "Record Your Plastics" sheet.
Review examples with students, and ask students to come up with one more example that could be added to the chart. Then tell students that tomorrow will be the day that they will do the exercise.

Report back

The day after students complete "Record Your Plastics," ask them what they notice about their lists.
Students might notice, for example, that they used several plastic cups, or that they threw away the plastic container that they brought their lunch in, or that they have furniture at home or in school that is made of plastic.
Make a list of student observations.
Then ask students to write for two minutes about what they think and how they feel about the results of their plastics record. Give volunteers the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings.


Group Work

Divide the class into groups. Give students highlighters in at least two colors (Highlights are made of plastic, by the way!) 

Ask students to look at the third column of their record, "What I did with it after I used it." Have them use one color to highlight all the items that they threw away immediately (e.g., a plastic bag) or that they would throw away eventually (e.g., a computer).
Then have them look at the fourth column and use a different color to highlight all the items that they could easily replace with something non-plastic.
Ask students, working with their group members, decide on one thing they are willing to change regarding their plastic use. To decide, have them review their charts:

  • Is there something they threw away immediately that they could avoid using entirely?
  • Is there something easily replaced that they could replace? For example, will they commit to using cloth bags instead of plastic bags? Will they commit to not using plastic straws?


Class Discussion

Ask people from each of the groups to report back:

  • What were the most common plastic items students used? List these on the board.
  • What items did students decide they could avoid entirely?
  • What items could they easily replace?
Work with students on their choices.  If they can’t commit to getting a reusable water bottle, for example, urge them to stop using an item that isn’t really necessary, like a plastic straw.
Ask students what obstacles stand in the way of their making the change, and what they need in order to overcome that obstacle and then problem-solve with them.  If, for example, they get bottled water from the machines at school, where can they get a reusable bottle? If they can’t afford to buy one, can the class see if a local business, such as a donut shop or dollar store, will donate plastic bottles?


Follow-Up Study

For a week, have students keep a record of their use of the item they targeted.

For example, if they committed to reduce their use of plastic straws, how many straws did they use every day that week?  How did the number compare to the number they recorded in their log?
Or, how many plastic bags did they use, and how did that number compare to the number they had recorded at the start of the lesson?
At the end of the week, check back with students on how they are doing.  Did they meet their goals?  If so, how? If not, why not?
Ask students to calculate how many items they will not use over the course of a year if they continue their new behavior. If, for example, they stop using one plastic bottle a day, in a year, they will use 365 fewer bottles.
Then tally total class numbers: How many plastic bottles and how many plastic bags will students not be using?


Discussion:  Systemic Change

Changes that individuals make do add up. But changes made at a larger scale add up even faster, and can be more lasting. Encourage students to think about what larger-scale changes they could push for and possibly achieve.
For example, could they advocate that their town or city institute a ban on plastic bags, or impose a fee on them?
Or, could students find a way to get water bottles for every student in the school, and get the school to remove the machines that sell bottled water?
Here are a few links to get them—and you—started. (New York)








Photo: Sustainable Initiatives Fund Trust