What should I do with this trash?

In this unit, students investigate an everyday phenomenon, what to do with trash. Students consider their daily trash disposal decisions and what happens to disposed items. Students begin a trash journal and record their trash decisions for several days. The class develops a Driving Question Board (DQB), that helps generate ideas for investigations. Their questions drive the flow of the unit. Students plan and carry out their own investigations to answer these questions. This includes investigating waste management problems and solutions, considering when and how to recycle, and investigating alternatives to waste. The unit culminates in a student developed action plan and a plan for a waste management community information event.

About This Unit

This waste management unit has been created by the Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (MSTE) in collaboration with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This unit is aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to provide ease in supplementing environmental education in the formal classroom but is also suitable for informal use. It has been designed to develop critical thinking skills, and to encourage students to think constructively about environmental issues and to make informed decisions about our natural resources.

Pathway Overview

The Pathway Overview shows the conceptual and coherent flow of the entire unit.

View overview

View pathway

ask Ask
observe Discover
image/svg+xml Learn
What should I do with this trash?

What are the choices?
Trash disposal options include:




Why do we need to reduce waste?

What is a waste management hierarchy?
Reducing waste can reduce land-fill space, save energy, conserve resources, and save money.

A waste management hierarchy prioritizes preventing waste and minimizing disposal.
How can we reduce our trash?

What is source reduction?
Strategies for reducing trash include:

Reducing new purchases
Using less
Reducing packaging
Reducing food waste
What is composting?
Biodegradable materials decompose and become compost. Compost is used to enrich soil.

Composting food and yard waste is a good way to recycle organic matter, reduce landfill space, and improve soil.
Does recycling work?

Are there successful recycling programs?
Paper and cardboard make up more than half of all recycled material.

Aluminum can be recycled indefinitely.

Recycling plastic is more complicated.
How are beverage containers recycled?

What happens during the recycling process?
Beverage companies encourage container recycling.
Is plastic a problem?

What are benefits of plastic?

Which plastic items are biggest problems?
Plastic accumulation is increasing at an exponential rate.

Plastic is very durable and resource efficient, but single-use plastics cause unnecessary waste.
What are options for changing our relationships with plastic?

What are alternatives to traditional plastic?

What do we need to know about recycling plastic?
Plastic can be refused, reused, and recycled.

Re-usable water bottles, paper packaging, and biodegradable plastics are examples of good alternatives.
How can we recycle correctly?

What can be recycled but not in the bin?
Some common household trash cannot be recycled in curbside bins, but some can be recycled in other ways.
Which household items are disposal problems?

Which trash items are hazardous?

How can these be disposed of safely?
There are store drop off and buy back programs available for some problem trash items.

Community collection programs provide safe disposal of hazardous items.
What is a landfill?

What happens to trash in a landfill?

Can a landfill get full?
Sanitary landfills are not dumps.

Landfill gas can be used as an energy source.

Landfills are designed to reduce groundwater contamination and harm to surrounding areas.
How to reduce what goes to the landfill?

What are other solutions?

What can my community
do? What can I do?
A circular economy keeps materials, products, and services in circulation for as long possible.

Teacher Guide

This document details the flow of lessons from the teacher perspective, including lab set-up and safety instructions, suggestions for discussion prompts, and examples of student work to assist in planning. Individual lessons from the Pathway document are included for reference, followed by detailed learning plans.

View teacher guide

Material & Supply List

A number of consumable and non-consumable materials and supplies are used during investigations. Some additional, optional equipment can enhance the investigations if available.

View material & supply list

Student Activity Sheets

Lessons in the Teacher Guide reference specific activity sheets; you can find links to these sheets below.

View activity sheets

Additional Resources

The following collections of resources may be helpful to augment this Waste Management unit:

Teacher resources

All Materials

You can find all of the materials listed above and more in our public Google Drive folder. These documents can be downloaded or copied into a private Google Drive and modified for classroom use.

View all waste management unit materials

Unit Resources

Interested in learning more about waste management? Looking for additional lessons and activities for other grade levels? These resources can help you get started.

View unit resources