Place—Beach Debris

Summary: What kinds of materials end up on our ocean beaches? In this classroom-based activity, students explore the debris found on an ocean beach and sort by type and potential origin.

Concepts to teach: Marine debris, persistent plastics, biotic, abiotic, decomposition, biodegradable

Goals: Students gain familiarity with objects that wash up on Oregon beaches, and connect anthropogenic debris with local activities.


Specific Objectives:

  1. Sort debris into categories: abiotic v. biotic, natural v. anthropogenic, biodegradable v. non-biodegradable, local origin v. distant origin
  2. Recognize the prevalence and diverse types of plastic marine debris.
  3. Make a reasonable guess about the original use and physical origin of various types of human-generated marine debris.

Activity Links and Resources:

  • Teacher can make or obtain marine debris kits for the classroom for students to explore.
    • Collect debris from an Oregon beach for your classroom kits. Include: a variety of plastic items in various sizes (recognizable and not), fishing gear, household items, familiar items, plastic loops, small plastic granules, Styrofoam, bags, building materials, glass, natural materials (shells, molts, driftwood, surf balls, dry algae) and whatever else you can find.
    • Pair an inland and coastal classroom for a joint exploration of beach debris. Students in the coastal classroom can visit the beach, collect items, and send them to the inland classroom. Classes can compare their results and conclusions.
    • The Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) has marine debris educational kits available in some areas in Oregon, including Lincoln County. Teachers can check out a kit through the C-MORE website. The C-MORE kit lessons are designed for grades 8-12, but some of the materials can be used for younger students.
    • Avoid graphic images and doomsday scenarios as they are not developmentally appropriate for upper elementary students. For more on this topic read the article Beyond Ecophobia by David Sobel.
  • Flotsam and Jetsam and Wrack is an Oregon Sea Grant guide to common (primarily biotic) materials that end up on beaches. Students can use this as a model for making up a similar guide to the common abiotic materials found on beaches.
  • Inquiry: How did a particular piece of marine debris end up on the beach? Examples can be found in the Pathways to the Ocean topic guide later in this focus area.
    • Science: Students explore an object and gather firsthand evidence of its origin, discuss ideas with others, and then describe their conclusions to the class
    • Creative Writing: Students write a realistic fiction story explaining the travels and experiences of the marine debris object
  • Learning Guide on Marine Debris: “Turning the Tide”—This NOAA guide gives the teacher background information and more ideas for marine debris lessons.
  • Trash Travels, a 2010 report from the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup—For teacher background information, this report provides, among other things, lists of the most commonly found items on coastal beaches (#1 cigarette butts, #2 plastic bags, etc.)


  • Probe: Plastics on the Trail—This probe from Alaska Sea Grant’s Alaska Seas and Rivers Curriculum elicits students’ ideas about how a plastic bottle on a trail impacts the environment.
  • Sort beach debris into categories and explain their common/differing characteristics and probable origins