Critical Conversations about Conservation

Lesson 4: The True Cost of Single-Use Plastics

North Carolina Essential Standards

5.G.1.2 Explain the positive and negative effects of human activity on the physical environment of the United States, past and present.

Prerequisite Knowledge

This is the fourth in a series of five lessons in a conservation unit that begin with a study of ecosystems and animals. In the first lesson learners will learn how humans depend on their ecosystems for their wants and needs.  In the second lesson learners will learn about the interconnectedness of human activity and other organisms. In the third lesson, students discover that not all humans have access to clean drinking water and human activity can have a negative effect on the available drinking water on our planet. Using this prior learning, students will learn how to conserve materials they use with emphasis on single-use plastics.


Students will be able to:

  • Explain the causes and effects that plastic litter has on our environment.
  • Dscuss the needs of reusing and reducing in their environment, as well as South Africa’s environment.
  • Limit the use of disposable plastics during lunch.


  • During the lesson, teachers will be able to formally assess their students through guided discussions and research.
  • A final assessment will be through each student creating a digital poster to convince citizens to reduce or reuse or even refuse plastic materials.


Both students and teacher will need access to internet.

Online resources:


  • Teacher-created PowerPoint presentation on littering
  • Student laptops

Prior Preparation


  1. Think about the different organisms in our ecosystems. What do they need to survive? What happens if there is a decrease in population? How does this affect competition? What happens to the food chain if animals are eating litter? Why is it important to keep our land and water clean?
  2. Show students the Powerpoint of different pictures from South Africa and America. Have students share thoughts within partnerships.
  3. Watch this video and ask: Where does our litter go?

Guided Practice

Day 1

  1. Ask: What are common plastics that we throw away everyday? (Possible student answers: Bags, water bottles, lunchables, ziploc bags)
  2. Discuss: How do we throw away plastics? (Possible student answers: garbage, litter, recycle, fall out)
  3. Explain that the plastics we are discussing are known as “single use plastics” because they are not recyclable. When we throw these little baggies away or our lunchable containers, we are risking the lives of different animals. These plastics are made of chemicals that are toxic to ourselves, but also toxic to animals. When we throw our plastics away, they do not decompose. The plastics can be blown away from the landfills into the oceans, or fall of a garbage truck into our backyard. Over time, the plastics break up into small fragments of plastic and are being ingested by the same animals that we may find on our own dinner plate.
  4. We need to start conserving our planet by reusing items so that we do not put any more garbage into the world. We also need to reduce the use of disposable plastics like using canvas bags when shopping.
  5. Click here for additional statistics to explore with students.

Days 2-3

  1. Discuss how a common practice in South Africa includes turning garbage into a new item.  This is known as repurposing. For example: 2 litter bottles are turned into decorations, toy cars or dolls. Plastic bags can be turned into mats, clothes, or bags. Cans or plastic are used to create art.
  2. Watch this video clip example of a South African artist.
  3. As citizens of the world, we need to understand how we are affecting the earth, ourselves, and animals. In small groups, have students to read this webpage for a better understanding. While reading, engage students in thinking of ways we can change how we use and dispose of plastic.
  4. Afterwards, brainstorm ways we can reuse or recycle plastic.
  5. Ask: What if we replace plastic with other materials?
  6. Explain that some cities have started charging customers to use plastic bags at stores, while others completely ban plastic bags. We can replace plastic bags with reusable bags.
  7. Display the Plastic Bag Ban map. Ask: If the government approves a ban on plastic bags, how can it change our environment? How can we replace plastic bottles  or ziploc bags?


  1. How can we work to conserve our environment? Show the public how we can reduce or reuse the common plastic materials in our everyday lifestyle?
  2. Students will create a digital poster (e.g., Discovery Education Board Builder) showcasing why is it important that we reduce, recycle, repurpose and reuse products.


  • Help students chunk the article for better comprehension.
  • Partner students for reading the article, and planning the poster.