Surrounded By Plastics
In the last hour, how many plastic items have you touched? And of those, how many do you think will eventually be recycled?
According to National Geographic, 91% of plastic items produced worldwide since 1950 have not been recycled, with un-recycled plastics either ending up in the oceans or landfills or being burned as garbage. While these numbers might have made sense in the 1950s, even now in the U.S. only about 23% of plastic bottles are being recycled yearly.
Why is so little plastic recycled? For one thing, much of the plastics we produce and use are “one time use” and are not easily recycled. Examples include:
- plastic wrappings (the wrap found on DVDs, children’s toys, decks of cards, cigarette packs, foods)
- polystyrene foam containers
- plasticware (plates, cups, straws, forks, etc.)
- sandwich bags, shopping bags, trash bags, etc.
Additionally, a number of other items containing plastic are difficult to recycle, including toiletries (toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, lipstick tubes, compacts, razor blade handles, etc.), cell phone cases, office chairs, lamps, shoes, key chains, pens, trash cans, TV remotes, children’s toys, air fresheners, coffee pots, car parts, and more.
This is important for two reasons. First, the EPA has stated that plastic recycling in the U.S. is on the decline, and many of the countries where the recycling plants are located are now refusing to accept our recycling. Second, plastics take a long time to break down naturally. Unlike paper, which can break down within six weeks in a landfill, plastics can take 1000 years to decompose. With the world producing 300 million tons of plastic a year, and only about 20% being recycled, we should expect 240 million tons of plastic (the weight of approximately 48 million African elephants) to be added to Earth’s surface per year. That’s almost 2.5 billion tons every decade. It’s easy to see how Earth will quickly become overrun with discarded plastics.
There are other problems with discarding plastics too. Plastic waste frequently ends up in waterways. Aquatic animals like fish, dolphins, otters, seals, turtles, and whales often become tangled in plastic waste, or mistake it for jellyfish and eat it, with disastrous results.
Even if the plastics do break down, they present a problem for all water-drinking life forms (which, of course, includes humans). As plastic breaks down, it creates plastic particles. Fish, crustaceans, and shellfish take in these particles, which people then eat. Even if you don’t eat seafood, a recent study showed that nearly all water bottled for human consumption is contaminated with plastic particles. The full effects of these plastic particles on human physiology are still unknown.
Ways Into The Conversation
The NGSS has multiple standards that could become part of a discussion about the importance of removing plastics from our environment. These standards include:
- Reducing human impact on the environment
K-ESS2-2, K-ESS3-3, 5-ESS3-1, MS-ESS3-3, HS-LS2-7, HS-LS4-6, HS-ESS3-4, HS-ESS3-6
- The importance of biodiversity
2-LS4-1, 3-LS4-4, MS-LS2-5, HS-LS2-7, HS-LS4-6
- The movement of matter through food chains and webs
5-LS2-1, MS-LS1-7, MS-LS2-3, HS-LS2-4
- The movement of water in the water cycle
- The dependence of life forms on water
K-LS1-1, K-ESS3-1, 2-LS2-1, 5-LS1-1, 5-ESS2-1, MS-LS2-1, HS-ESS3-1, HS-ESS3-3
What Can Be Done in the Classroom?
Small changes are much more likely to be successful than large ones. If you expect to go straight from couch potato to 5K runner, within a week you’ll likely have given up; try to commit to adding one additional block to your run every week and you could still be successful a year later. The same is true for all changes. Rather than lead students to failure, it is better to encourage them to make a small change that they will be able to accomplish and stick to.
Here are a few plastic-friendly ways you can bring the importance of reducing, reusing, and recycling into your classrooms.
Students can learn how decreasing human impact on the environment can be as simple as reducing the amount of plastics humans produce and throw away. Using long-term items such as lunch boxes and cloth tote bags, or using items made from materials that break down more easily than plastics—such as paper lunch sacks—can reduce plastic trash.
A fun kindergarten classroom activity is making reusable shopping bags from old tee shirts, or having students decorate their very own reusable lunch boxes or bags.
One man’s plastic trash can be another man’s plastic treasure. Students can learn that one way communities protect natural resources is to find new uses for discarded plastics so that they do not become trash.
For example, fifth graders can reuse plastic containers to learn about life’s dependence on water by making watering cans and plant pots, or about food webs by watching birds feed at their handmade bird feeders, and the water cycle by making a mini greenhouse.
A simple way to minimize human impact on the environment is to design efficient ways to recycle materials at school. This can also help students feel that they are making a difference, in addition to helping them form life-long habits.
Middle schoolers can design various ways to increase recycling at school—from creating easy-to-read labels to making specialized recycling bins. The students can then evaluate the designs to determine which is mosteffective and will therefore minimize the impact on the environment the most.
Students can also learn about how specific plastics affect specific species in ecosystems, such as the effect of plastic six-pack rings or fishing nets on sea turtles.
Students can then evaluate real-life solutions for how to remove the risks of these hazards, such as depending on consumers to cut up the plastic rings from six packs before discarding them, or making rings and nets out of biodegradable or even animal-edible materials.
Working together, we can help solve the issue of plastic waste in the environment, all while teaching important scientific concepts. Let’s go!