THE GARBAGE PATCH: Two Earth Day Lessons for Elementary Students

With the help of a short video clip, students explore the 'life cycle' of a plastic bag and develop a 'reduce, reuse, recycle' action plan.

A question for teachers: The two classroom lessons below draw from a 7-minute video clip available on the web. Is it easy or difficult for you to access the web in your classroom? Do you find it useful to incorporate web-based media with your students? Please let us know:


Lesson 1:

Great Pacific Garbage Patch



Students will:

  • be introduced to Earth Day
  • watch online a clip about plastic bags and the "North Pacific Gyre"
  • learn what the North Pacific Gyre is and what effect it has on local wildlife
  • explore the "life cycle" of a plastic bag

Materials needed


(5 minutes) What is Earth Day

Give students a quick overview of the history of Earth Day by sharing the following: April 22 is Earth Day. It is a special day to learn about our planet and how to keep it healthy. In 1969 a Senator* called Gaylord Nelson was worried about our planet. He had noticed how dirty the planet was getting and how many animals were dying. He knew that he couldn't solve these problems by himself because they were too big, so he decided to teach other people about what was happening so that they too could help solve the planet's problems.

He wrote many letters to his colleagues in Washington and published articles to convince people around the country to have a special day on which everyone would learn to care about the planet. On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was held and people across the country learned about the health of the planet. It was so popular that very soon the idea of Earth Day spread around the world and now every April 22, people around the world make a special effort to learn about the planet and do things to make it better.

* A senator is someone who is chosen by the people of his/her state to represent and speak for them in Washington.

(4 minutes) Gathering

In pairs ask students to talk about a time that they asked for help because they couldn't do something by themselves. What was that like? What happened? Give them two minutes to share and let them know when the time is about halfway up so that they can switch. Then reconvene the whole class and ask a few volunteers to share their stories "popcorn style."

(2 minutes) Check Agenda

Explain that on Earth Day, April 22, students will join others around the world in learning about the planet and ways of making it healthier.

(25 minutes) Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Create groups of five and provide each student with a short description that introduces them to one of the five characters in the video clip. In each group, all five characters will be represented. (For the handout, click here.) Ask students to read the description of their character, and instruct them to pay attention to their character when watching the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" clip. Ask students to think about what the character contributes to the team as they deal with the Hufflebot plastic bag problem.

Show students the video:

After watching the clip, give each small group a few minutes to talk about what is called the "life cycle" of a plastic bag: What happens to a plastic bag from the time it is created in the Hufflebot Factory till it ends up in the ocean? Ask students to think about real life and the plastic bags they and their families use. Where do people get their plastic bags, what do they do with them and for how long? What happens with these plastic bags once they've been used?

After a few minutes, ask representatives from each group to share one of the life-cyle stages they talked about. Jot them down on the board, creating a chart (click here for a sample).

Once they've shared their stages, ask students to back up and think about what happens before the bags are made at the factory. What about the raw materials that go into the making of a plastic bag and the shipping of those materials to the factory? Though it might be hard to believe, plastic bags are actually made out of oil and/or natural gas. Think about it.

Note for the teacher: Plastic bags start as crude oil, natural gas, or other petrochemical derivatives, which are transformed into chains of hydrogen and carbon molecules known as polymers or polymer resin. After being heated, shaped, and cooled, the plastic is ready to be flattened, sealed, punched, or printed on. (Source is no longer active.)

Explain that all products have life cycles like this. Energy is used at every step of the "product life cycle" which produces more litter, dirt, bad smell, etc. Draw clouds, lines, etc. at different points in the chart to illustrate this. Many products we use end up in the garbage, creating huge landfills and garbage dumps all over the world. Some products don't even make it to the garbage, which is how we end up with floating garbage patches like the one shown in the clip.

Explain that the North Pacific Gyre exists in real life, not as an island that Dr. Hufflebot is trying to build his empire on, but as a huge garbage patch floating in the ocean north of Hawaii. As Soccet explains "the North Pacific Gyre is a ginormous swirl of ocean currents that gathers millions of plastic bags and other trash from all around the world." And as you saw in the clip, this garbage hurts the local animals like fish, birds and turtles. They think the garbage is food and end up with stomachs full of plastic, leaving little room for real food.

So the question is, "now what?"


(4 minutes) Closing

In pairs ask students to talk about what solutions to the plastic bag problem the band came up with. Are there other solutions your students can think of? Tell your students that this is something they will explore in more detail in tomorrow's lesson.

Tell your class that tomorrow, they'll continue looking at ways to help make the planet healthy.

Ask students to bring a plastic bag to school.


Lesson 2:

Reduce Reuse Recycle



Students will


  • be introduced to American consumption and wastefulness
  • explore the notion of "reduce, reuse, recycle"

Materials needed

  • today's agenda on chart paper or on the chalkboard
  • plastic bags
  • chart paper and markers to chart the "what can we do?" list


(4 minutes) Gathering

Ask students to talk in pairs: Can you think of a time when you helped clean up something up? How did it make you feel? Get a few volunteers to share what they said with the whole class.

(2 minutes) Check Agenda

Go over the day's plan and ask if it seems okay.

(10 minutes) Plastic bag strand

Ask students to take out the plastic bags they brought to class. In the groups of five from yesterday's lesson, ask students to work together to tie their plastic bags into a strand of five bags. When a group is ready, get the students to pair up with another group to tie their two strands together, and so on until all bags are tied into one long strand. Take a look at this strand and think that there are 20 or so bags tied into this strand. Now consider the 1,000 bags used per American family per year. Imagine how long that strand would be.

Fact: 14 billion (14,000,000,000) bags are used in the U.S. alone each year. When tied together these bags could be wrapped around the world 26 thousand (26,000) times!

Think about the fact that only 0.6 percent of these plastic bags is recycled. That is less than one out of every hundred. And most of the rest of the bags never even make it to landfills/garbage dumps. Instead they fly into the air after people are done with them—getting caught in fences, trees, even the throats of birds, fish and turtles and, as we saw in yesterday's clip, clogging gutters, sewers, and waterways, ending up in the ocean as ginormous garbage swirls.


(8 minutes) Gorilla in the Greenhouse Recap

Ask your class to think back to yesterday's Gorilla in the Greenhouse clip. Get a show of hands of who was asked to follow KJ? Scoot? Bucket? Cypher? Socket? Then present your students with the following questions:

  • In the clip, the band sings about "cause and effect." What do you think this means?
  • What solutions for the plastic bag problem did the band come up with?
  • What do you think about these solutions? Are there others?
  • Do you think it is something that you and your family could do?
  • What about other things to help improve the planet's health?
  • Have you ever heard of the phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle?" What do you think it means?

(10 minutes) Reduce, reuse, recycle

Ask your class to form groups according to their characters from yesterday. Those who followed KJ form one group, as do those who followed Scoot, Bucket, Cypher, and Socket. In their groups ask students to talk about what ends up in the garbage at school or at home that they might be able to reduce, reuse or recycle. Think about school lunch for instance (the sandwich bags, juice boxes, styrofoam trays, etc.), as well as the classroom garbage (lots of paper). Also think about home: What ends up in the garbage there?

Talk about the waste of other things as well. Is there a way to save some of the water we use, the heat or cooling of our classrooms and homes, the gas for the family car, the power to machines like fridges, freezers, lamps, computers, phones, televisions, radios, MP3 players, and anything else your students come up with?

Ask students to discuss this, first in their small groups. Then have students bring their ideas to the large group. On chart paper titled "What can we do?" make a list of their responses, using the three categories of 1. Reduce, 2. Reuse, and 3. Recycle.

Consider this list a work in progress. You can check in with your students over the coming weeks to see which of the actions on their list they are implementing at home or at school. Consider adding actions to the list as your students become more aware about how to better care for the environment.


(4 minutes) Closing

Teach your class the following chant, line after line, and then together as a group:

"No job is too big,
No action too small,
For the care of the earth,
Is a task for us all."



Additional Student Activities

Low-waste lunch day

Ask your students to first do what the band did in the Gorilla in the Greenhouse clip: Before they took action, they tried to get a better understanding of the situation. Ask your students to do some lunch room research: What waste is produced during lunch? Then, based on the research, help students figure out a plan of action. Divide up the various tasks among your students. Consider informing the rest of the school of the garbage problem by making posters, announcements, presentations, etc. Have students share their ideas for reducing waste during school lunch.


Green Gorilla Activities

Go to the Gorilla in the Greenhouse website and check out the suggested activities at:

Many thanks to the creators of Gorilla in the Greenhouse for permission to use their materials.


How did this activity work in your class? Please share your stories and other feedback with us! Email: