Human Use of Resources—Plastics Around Us

Summary: How do we use plastic in our daily lives? What are the properties of different types of plastics, and what do we do with plastic when we are done with it? Students investigate these questions through hands on activities.

Concepts to teach: Plastic, single-use plastic, biodegradable, recycling

Goals: Students gain an appreciation for the many ways in which we use plastic in our daily lives, and define single-use, recycled, recyclable and contaminated plastic. Students identify where and how household plastics can be reduced, reused, or recycled before they leave the classroom.

S3.3S.1, S3.3S.2, S3.4D.2
S4.2P.1, S43S.1, S4.3S.2, S4.4D.3
S5.3S.1, S5.3S.2, S5.4D.3

Specific Objectives:

  1. Make a list of all the plastic found in a school or home environment.
  2. Define and identify examples of single-use, multi-use, recycled, recyclable and contaminated plastic.
  3. Describe three ways to reduce the amount of plastics that get thrown “away.”

Activity Links and Resources:

  • Plastics in Daily Life—In this lesson plan from OSU Chemical Engineering Department, students survey their own use of plastic, learn about the properties of different kinds of plastic, and sort plastics according to their recycling number.
  • Kids Science Challenge: KSC Lesson Plans
    • Packaging 101—Students examine different types of packaging, understand which types are recyclable, and explore practices that go into sustainable packaging.
    • Lunch Weigh In– Students collect data to measure the amount of waste generated from disposable lunch bags.
  • ThinkGreen—This website has several K-12 lesson plans and videos on the topic of waste and recycling, including:
    • Lesson 1: What is in our Trash?—Students examine items to determine what they are made of–glass, paper, plastic, or metal.
    • Lesson 2
      • Sorting it Out: Metals—Students explore how physical properties are used to sort recyclable materials efficiently.
      • Sorting it Out: Plastics—After describing the look and feel of plastic samples, students complete an investigation to determine their relative densities.
      • Paper Recycling—Students learn the cycle of products; their consumption, recycling into new products, their resale manufactures to create new products and ultimately their resale to consumers.
    • Lesson 3: The Energy of Decay—Students explore how decaying organic matter can be harvested as a source of energy.
  • Life Cycles of Plastic
    • For how long are common household plastics used? Develop a survey or worksheet for students to gauge the time a given piece of plastic is used in their home. Compare results as a class and discuss the differences between single-use vs multi-use plastics, cheap vs sturdy plastics, etc.
    • Life Cycle Assessment lesson plan—This lesson from Teach Engineering is designed for grades 6-8, but it may be brought down to upper elementary level and/or used for teacher background information. Students learn about product life cycle assessment and the flow of energy through the cycle, comparing it to the flow of nutrients and energy in the life cycle of an organism.


  • Create a KWL chart for plastics.
  • Students sort a variety of plastic objects according to type or number, and give written or oral justifications about why thy put each object where they did.
  • Students create posters illustrating three specific ways to reduce the amount of plastics in the garbage.