Garbage 2: Recycling

What You Need


The same bag of trash used in the first lesson will be used again in this lesson. The contents include:

  • Plastic bag
  • Milk carton
  • Aluminum soft drink can
  • Glass bottle
  • A half-eaten hamburger, hot dog, or other beef (meat) product

Fill another bag with common throwaway items. This bag should include edible items as well as various containers that have a recycling symbol.

Garbage 2: Recycling Photo Credit: Calum Hutchinson (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


To inform students about the problems of waste disposal and how recycling can help to reduce the amount of waste we create.


This lesson is the second of a two-part series on garbage and recycling. These lessons are meant to help students develop an understanding of what many of the common items we use everyday are made and how recycling can help reduce waste.

Garbage 1: The Roots of Trash invites students to take a closer look at the everyday items they throw in the trash. Students are prompted think about what everyday products—such as bottles, cans, cartons, plastic, and food—are made of and how they are generally produced. They learn about natural resources, both renewable and nonrenewable, and work in teams to further research and report on how these resources and products are developed and used up before being discarded in the trash.

In Garbage 2: Recycling, students apply what they have learned about throwaway products—and the valuable natural resources from which they're derived—by thinking about where garbage goes after they throw it out. They also examine their own ideas and habits about recycling and discover what a serious effect litter and mass waste disposal have on the environment. They should come to realize that recycling is one solution to limit this ongoing global problem. They learn about how recycling generally works, what kinds of products can be recycled, and what other valuable products recyclable materials can be turned into.

Young children should be given opportunities to study and manipulate many different kinds of materials, from clay and paper to metals and plastics. This allows them to begin learning about the properties that make up materials as well as about manufacturing. This may also include identifying material properties and figuring out their suitability for different purposes. It is not too early for children to begin to wonder what happens to something after it has been thrown away. By the time they reach the 3-5 grade level, students should already understand that some kinds of materials are better than others for making any particular thing, that several steps are usually involved in making things, and that some materials can be used over again. Working with products and investigating their base properties can help students discover the properties of various materials and begin to identify how people transform materials into useful objects. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, pp. 187–188.)

It will be helpful if students begin to see that advancements in technology over the years have led manufacturers to use some natural resources much more rapidly than they can be replenished. (This includes both renewable and nonrenewable resources, which they will learn about in this series.) Many forests worldwide, for example, have been gradually reduced, and ore deposits are being depleted. These kinds of threats to the environment have prompted the search for substitute materials and new methods and technology to recycle resources that can be renewed. Nevertheless, given the overwhelming demand for manufactured goods globally—and the tons of trash it produces—the future welfare of the planet will depend heavily on how we develop, use, and restrict technology and our consumption habits. (Science for All Americans, pp. 107, 111–112.) It is important to impress upon students at this early stage that one of the best ways for them to protect the environment is to make recycling a natural part of their everyday lives. Every plastic bottle, newspaper, or bag of garbage counts.

While teaching, also keep in mind that research on student understanding of materials suggests that the tasks of classifying objects according to what they are made of and of comparing properties of materials can be challenging for early elementary-school children. In addition, elementary-school children may have limited knowledge or hold misconceptions about the origins and transformations of materials. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 349.)

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Planning Ahead

These materials provide good background information for the two lessons in this series:


Begin by doing a brief review of what students learned about renewable and nonrenewable resources in the first lesson. Review questions may include:

  • What are renewable resources?
  • What are nonrenewable resources?
  • Is _______ (paper/plastic/glass/soda can, etc.) made from a renewable or nonrenewable resource?

Then, as a way to spark their interest and get them focused on the ideas of this lesson, ask questions such as these:

  • Where do people throw out their garbage?
  • What do you think happens to the garbage then?
  • Where are the different places you see garbage?
  • Why do you think there are different places for different kinds of garbage?

(Accept all reasonable answers. Encourage students to elaborate on their responses.)

Next, take the bag of trash from the first lesson and start to litter the classroom with its contents. You can pretend to be a careless person who uses the items and then mindlessly throws them on the ground when finished. If appropriate, you may ask a couple of students to assist you in littering the class with the other bag of trash you have assembled. Once all of the trash has been littered across the room, ask the class:

  • What do you call it when someone just throws garbage on the ground or along waterways?
  • Do you think littering is a good or bad thing? Why?

Once it is clear that littering is a bad thing (that can hurt the environment, among other things), ask students for help in cleaning up trash throughout the room. Before they start, set up three different "garbage stations" where they can place the refuse—the compost pile, the recycling bin, and the trash can. Tell students to put the food garbage in the compost pile, the things that they think can be used again in the recycling bin, and things that they think cannot be reused in the trash can.

This activity can serve as a starting point to get students thinking about recycling (and how to do it). They should pick up the trash and sort it based on what they think belongs in each of the designated areas. (Note: Be aware that most students will not yet "know" what goes where beyond the simple instructions they have been given).

Once all the garbage has been sorted and placed in each of the "garbage stations," ask questions such as these:

  • Have you ever sorted out garbage before? Explain.
  • Who placed this _____ (item) in this ______ (garbage station)? Why did you decide to put it there?
  • Why do you think people sort their garbage like this?
  • When people sort their garbage, what do you think happens to the recyclable items?

(Accept all reasonable answers. Encourage students to elaborate on their responses.)

During this discussion, it is helpful to explain that many people separate their garbage into different areas—such as a compost pile, recycling bin, or trash can—in order to reuse as much of it as they can and limit waste. Explain that composting can be used to turn food garbage into soil fertilizer for gardens and house plants. Recyclable items go to recycling centers and other facilities where they are specially treated and can be used to make new products. Help students also to see that items that go into the trash cannot be used again—and that trash is becoming a bigger and bigger problem across the world. Students also should be left with the idea that recycling garbage can help to lessen the growing trash problem. Reinforce this point by taking all the items in the compost and recycling areas and piling them into a mountain of garbage in the (unusable and wasteful) trash can station.


A Closer Look: The Problem of Waste Disposal
Here are some statistics on U.S. waste disposal from the Let's Reduce and Recycle resource on the EPA website:

  • We throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour (22 billion plastic bottles a year).
  • We throw away 31.6 million tons of yard waste each year.
  • We throw away over 200 million tires every year (one for every person in the U.S.).
  • With the aluminum we throw away in three months, the U.S. could rebuild its entire commercial air fleet.
  • Every two weeks, we throw away enough bottles and jars to build a tower at least 1,300 feet tall.

To better drive home the problem of litter and waste disposal, you may either share some of these statistics with the class or have students imagine that every family in America drank one carton of milk and one can of soda and read one newspaper a day and threw the trash out at the same place at the same time. Have students discuss the mountains of trash that collect daily in the U.S. Then, to further illustrate the startling and usually unseen problem of waste disposal, students can use the Recycling student esheet to view a slide show that contains images of a public landfill.

When students are able to conceptualize this problem, ask questions such as these (the first of which they considered earlier in the lesson):

  • What do you think happens to the trash we throw away?
  • What problems can all this trash cause?
  • What ways have you learned to limit the amount of trash we throw away?

Help students see that the garbage we throw out either goes to waste dumps or landfills, or is burned. Each of these waste disposal options, over the long term, end up polluting the land, water, and air around us. It is important to remind students that sorting reusable trash for composting and recycling—as they did earlier—is one of the best ways to limit the trash we throw away and the potential dangers we impose on our environment. To illustrate, you can have them imagine that if half the families in the U.S. recycled, the mountains of trash they saw in the slide show would be cut in half.

Learning More About Recycling
To get students to think more about limiting waste disposal through recycling, make a copy of or draw on the board the three-arrowed, triangular symbol that represents recycling. Ask students:

  • Do you know what this symbol represents?
  • Where have you seen it before?

Confirm that the image symbolizes recycling and that the three arrows stand for collect, reprocess, and reuse. Point out how the symbol represents a wheel going around and around—just like recyclable materials being used again and again without being thrown away. Students should know that these symbols can be found on many everyday products to indicate that they can be recycled. Identify the trash items that have a recycling symbol on them and pass them around the class. Also emphasize that not everything that can be recycled has a recycling symbol, such as paper, food garbage, yard waste, and other materials.

Using the Recycling student esheet, students should visit the Planet Pals Earthzone Recycle Center. Here they can learn about the specific kinds of papers, packaging, plastics, and other materials that are regularly recycled. (Note: Just have students read the introduction and look over the colorful recycling images, avoiding the poster-coloring activity at the bottom of the page.) Check their comprehension by asking questions like these:

  • What are two ways people can recycle from home?
  • Have you ever seen a recycling bin like the one in the picture? Do you have one at home?
  • What kinds of paper/metal/plastic products can be recycled?
  • What does "hazardous" mean? What are some examples of hazardous materials? Why do you think these materials are bad for the environment?

This discussion should help students see more clearly that recycling—whether at home, at school, or at the office—involves recognizing items that can be recycled, collecting and separating them from trash that cannot be recycled, and either storing them in a special recycling bin for the garbage collectors or taking the items to a recycling area or center.

Next, to help students practice identifying recyclable items and placing them in bins, have them use their student esheets to go to and play the Which Bin Does It Go In? activity. (Note that this activity appears to work in Internet Explorer browsers only.) This fun and interesting activity involves students dragging and dropping trash items into the correct recycling bins. With each brief game, the conveyer belt gets faster and faster, testing students' identification and reaction skills. (Before they begin, discuss the different bins. Make sure they understand what kinds of materials go in each bin.)

New Products Made From Recyclable Materials
Finally, ask for students' ideas about what the recyclable items they have studied—particularly paper, glass, plastic, and cans—can be recycled into. Once they have offered their ideas, have them visit Where Does It All Go? to learn about the kinds of products that can be made from recyclable materials.

Since some of the words from this reading are challenging for this level, it is recommended that you read it aloud, giving explanations as necessary. Once students have thought about the valuable products that come from recyclable material, check their comprehension by asking questions like:

  • In Manitoba, Canada, where do all the recyclable materials go?
  • What kinds of new products can be created from newspapers/magazines?
  • What kinds of new products can be created from steel cans?
  • What kinds of new products can be created from aluminum cans?
  • What kinds of new products can be created from cardboard boxes?
  • What kinds of new products can be created from plastic bottles and containers?
  • What kinds of new products can be created from glass bottles?

During the discussion, students may also benefit from thinking about other kinds of products that can be created from the recyclable materials they learned about from the reading. Accept all reasonable answers.


Review and reinforce what students have learned by asking questions like these:

  • Should all garbage just be thrown out in the trash? Why or why not?
  • Where does trash usually go when it is thrown out?
  • What are some ways we can limit the amount of trash we throw out?
  • What kinds of items can be recycled?
  • What kinds of new products can be made from _____(paper/plastic/steel cans/etc.)?
  • Why is it important to limit the amount of trash we throw out?

Home-Work: Can This Be Recycled?
Distribute the Can This Be Recycled? student sheet and read over the directions with the class. Students should find fifteen products at home that have the recycling symbol on them and record them on the student sheets. Also encourage students to answer the Bonus Questions about whether there is a recycling program in their neighborhood and where the recycling center closest to their home is. While discussing their findings, it might be worthwhile to highlight how surprising it is that so many products have the recycling symbol and how convenient it can be for many to recycle on a regular basis, whether from home or at a local recycling center. Taking these smart and responsible measures would help to limit the mountains of trash a family creates in a year and help to keep our environment clean.


This lesson may be supplemented by other related Science NetLinks lessons like Paper Production, which teaches students how to make paper by hand as compared to the manufactured process used in modern plants. Energy Sources and Use can also teach students about different renewable and nonrenewable sources of energy and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Students can further their litter-awareness and clean-up skills by playing the Trash Trooper activity on the EcoKids website. This activity directs students to pick up different kinds of recyclable garbage that people have dumped along a frog habitat.

At the Rotten Truth About Garbage, students can find a number of facts, activities, and other interesting environmentally friendly resources that will help them further their understanding of garbage (solid waste in particular), where it comes from, where it goes, and all the different ways they can help to minimize waste in their lives to protect the environment.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks

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