Trash Talk

9, 10, 11, 12

Students read about and discuss issues related to pollution, waste management, and recycling. They collect and analyze physical data about the type and amount of litter in a neighborhood park or region. They are challenged to come up with a plan to reduce the amount of litter in their neighborhood.

Lesson Rating 
PrintOne 50-Minute Class Period, plus time to organize a litter-reduction campaign

The learner will:

  • participate in a classroom and/or neighborhood clean-up project
  • quantify and describe the results of their clean-up efforts
  • discuss the effect of human waste on their environment, and assess their own impact
  • assess local recycling resources at the classroom and neighborhood level, and make suggestions to decrease waste and increase recycling
  • Plastic grocery bags (reused, may be brought in by students from their homes)
  • Box of rubber gloves (one pair for each student, plus extras)
  • Old newspapers
  • Scale for weighing bags of collected litter
  • Paper, pencil,and clipboards for collecting data at the field trip site
  • Student copies of Handout 1: Environmental Stewardship
Teacher Preparation 

Arrange in advance for today's field trip to pick up litter in a local park, neighborhood, or campus. Obtain necessary field trip permission and chaperones. Bring along reused plastic grocery bags and gloves for the litter pickup. You may ask students in advance to contribute plastic bags from their homes for the project.

  • environment: conditions that make up a person’s surroundings
  • landfill: an area of land where garbage is dumped and covered  with soil
  • pollution: harmful substances in the environment
  • recycle: to make suitable for further use
  • waste management: the process of collecting, transporting, storing, recycling, processing, and disposing of garbage
  • environmental stewardship: the careful management of the environment, which has been entrusted to everyone's care; stewardship 

Ask youth to imagine what their world would look like with less trash. Youth can draw a picture or write a statement or poem. Ask them to reflect on what would be different and share at least one difference with the group.

Youth sit in a circle and take turns reflecting on the lesson. They may tell one thing that was easier or harder than they thought, or they may name one thing they can do personally to increase recycling or reduce trash or promote recycling with another person or group.


  1. Anticipatory Set:

    Distribute Handout One: "Environmental Stewardship" that shows a variety of past headlines. Discuss some of the global environmental disasters highlighted here, and extend the conversation with more recent environmental news, such as oil spills. Discuss what it means to be a good steward of the environment. Clarify with students that their environment may be their immediate surroundings, their community, their country, or the world. Talk about the different types of stewardship that are needed at each level and how they influence the other levels of environment. For example, they can recycle at home and also advocate for a ban on a chemical that is destructive to the global environment, both have effects to them and the world. Ask the students whether every person on earth has a responsibility to take care of the earth. Discuss why or why not.

  2. Ask the students to define pollution and give examples(auto emissions, industrial waste, household chemicals, and litter). Identify garbage and litter as significant sources of pollution, especially in urban environments where there are many people living close together. Ask students to explain why too much garbage is a problem for our local, national, and world environments.

  3. Share basic “trash facts” relevant to the national and local environments:

    • Americans create about 4½ pounds of garbage per person each day.
    • New York City generates about 14,000 tons of trash—that’s 28 million pounds— every day.
    • The Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, NY, is 2200 acres and is taller than the Statue of Liberty.
    • In 2008, Americans recovered 61 million tons of trash through recycling—that’s 122,000,000,000 (122 billion) pounds of garbage that did not go to a landfill.
  4. Ask the students whether it is important to them to have a healthy environment and how they feel about the trash facts above. Discuss why they feel that way.

  5. Help the students understand that addressing a big issue like garbage pollution starts small with individuals taking personal responsibility in their local environment. Ask them to identify significant efforts in history of environmental stewardship and then reflect on their personal role in reducing pollution. Ask what impact a small group of young people can have.

  6. The first step to solving a problemis identifying the needs, so the following steps describe how students can collect local data to explore the issue of litter in their neighborhood. After that, they can discuss how to act.

    1. Choose an area for “pollution reduction” (this can be the building, the block, or another defined area such as a nearby park or playground). Instruct students to collect as much garbage as possible in a predetermined time period (10-20 minutes). Identify the search parameters and types of litter that they may collect (cigarette butts, plastic, paper, Styrofoam) Be sure students know not to pick up broken glass or other sharp objects.
    2. Go to the designated area with plastic grocery bags (reused) and gloves for all students and adult helpers. Move the students into work groups of two to five students. Have them collect as much garbage as they can in a designated time (10-20 minutes).
    3. At the end of the allotted time period, have students meet in a designated area where the trash can be weighed, counted, and sorted. Have one or more students keep track of the data on paper.
    4. After weighing each group’s bag, have students dump the trash onto old newspapers for sorting. Have students sort the trash by type. Have them estimate the percentage of each type of trash (e.g., paper, plastic, food) noting which types are most common and separating out any items that can be recycled.
    5. Bag the separate piles of trash and recyclables and weigh each type to determine the “worst offenders” by weight.
    6. Have students record the types of trash and the amounts/weights.
    7. Back in class each student group creates a graph or chart of the data, showing how much and what types of garbage were collected.
  7. Have students write a reflection, including a description of what they found, the impact of excessive trash on the environment, and proposed solutions for the litter problem. Tell them to include a definition of environmental stewardship and reflect on personal responsibility for the care of the land.

  8. Locate a recycling bin and have students sort the recyclable items properly. If there is not one available, ask students to propose solutions to the problem. They may contact the community waste management department to find out the proceedures for setting up recycling in an area.

  9. Support the students as they make a plan to reduce the amount of garbage in their homes, school, neighborhood, city, or county.

Cross Curriculum 

Students create a clean-up campaign focusing on their “pollution reduction” area, including posters made on recycled paper (computer printed or hand-drawn) encouraging people to utilize trash bins and recycling containers. If no recycling containers are available in the designated area, youth may contact local waste management to request an additional bin and/or to implement a recycling program.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 03. Philanthropy and Economics
      1. Benchmark HS.5 Give examples of stewardship decisions throughout history and in current events.
  2. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Define and give examples of motivations for giving and serving.
      2. Benchmark HS.4 Cite historical examples of citizen actions that affected the common good.
  3. Strand PHIL.IV Volunteering and Service
    1. Standard VS 01. Needs Assessment
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Identify a need in the school, local community, state, nation, or world.
      2. Benchmark HS.2 Research the need in the school, neighborhood, local community, state, nation, or world.
    2. Standard VS 02. Service and Learning
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Select a service project based on interests, abilities, and research.