Save the Fishes

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MAIN TOPIC OF VIDEO: Plastic pollution in oceans

One Bottle At a Time Image1



  1. What products do you use that contain plastic?
  2. What happens to plastic after it is thrown away?
  3. Is all plastic the same?


  1. According to the video, how can plastic make its way to the ocean?
  2. What is another product that can get into our oceans?
  3. What are two other environmental issues mentioned in this video?


  1. What is the connection between plastic, CO2 and climate change?
  2. What can you do to use fewer disposable products in your life?
  3. How can you take action to minimize the amount of total waste that your household produces or aid in the clean-up of polluted waterways?




  1. Answers will vary depending on student experience.  Plastic is in many products that people use every day, such as debit/credit cards, diapers, bottles, glasses, pantyhose.  See this list on for more examples of common products that contain plastic.
  2.  Only 9% of the plastic generated in the US was recycled in 2012.  If not recycled, plastic is either thrown away, or discarded as litter.  After plastic is thrown away in the US, it goes into a landfill.  According to the EPA, plastic makes up 12.7% of municipal landfill waste.  Once in a landfill, plastic sticks around for a very long time.  It takes plastic between 20-1,000 years to decompose, depending on the type of plastic.  Some of the factors that affect the rate of decomposition include exposure to sunlight, temperature, precipitation, surface area and chemical structure.  If discarded as litter, it can make its way into our local waterways and eventually, the ocean.


Figure 1: Total Municipal Solid Waste Generation (by Material), 2012. 251 Million Tons (before recycling)


3.  Plastics are given a numeric code to signify the manner in which they are produced.  Recycling rules vary depending on the type of plastic recycled and where in the country materials are being recycled.  The city of San Jose has guidelines here.


  1. Trash can be discarded near ponds, which can make their way through creeks to the ocean, impacting marine life and creating garbage patches in the ocean such as the Great Pacific Marine Garbage Patch.  As much as 4.7 million tons of plastic reaches our oceans each year.  Because of the way our ocean surface waters circulate, this discarded trash collects in a gyre in the Pacific Ocean.  (map from National Geographic)


Figure 2: Great Pacific Garbage Patch


2.  Beer cans, cigarette butts and diapers (which contain plastic micro beads) are all mentioned as other forms of litter that can end up in the ocean.

3.  Turning off faucets when not in use, taking shorter showers, using alternative energy sources such as geothermal energy (making Iceland carbon neutral) and biofuels (Denmark), eating locally grown produce, lowering your carbon footprint.


  1. Petroleum is used to create plastics.  The Pacific Institute estimated that in 2006, it took 17 million barrels of oil to generate all of the plastic water bottles sold in the US.  In addition to oil, it took 3 liters of water to produce every 1 liter bottle of water.  Carbon that is moved from below ground into our atmosphere (in the form of CO2 from oil) is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.  Therefore, increasing the use of bottled water leads to an increase in CO2 emissions, and contributes to climate change.
  2. Answers will vary.  Buying food in bulk, making food from fresh ingredients (rather than packaged ingredients), using reusable containers.  Utilizing glass bottles for other purposes around the home so that they don’t get thrown away.
  3. Answers will vary.  Some solutions include: using reusable containers and water bottles, buying in bulk from the grocery store to reduce the amount of packaging purchased (a zero-waste grocery store opened in Germany in 2014), repurposing waste for other uses, composting paper products and food scraps.   The video mentions the power of young people to form clean-up committees for their local waterways.  Everyone can pick up litter when they see it in their community!



  • Charles Moore gives a TED talk on the history, environmental consequences, and interesting statistics and visuals related to plastic pollution in the ocean.  This talk includes many pictures and a NOAA model of trash movement in the Pacific Ocean (approximately 7 minutes).
  • A discussion of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch easily lends itself to a few basic topics in earth science, including oceanic circulation/gyres and the Coriolis Effect.  These physical phenomena explain why trash accumulates in the Pacific Ocean, rather than dispersing throughout the world’s oceans.
  • Food chains and food webs are another area of importance when discussing plastic pollution in the ocean.  Plastic appears to be plankton to marine organisms that mistakenly eat it.  Show students the TED talk linked above about this phenomenon and then ask them to illustrate a natural oceanic food web that includes the albatross, labelling the trophic levels and adding a box for the interference of plastic in this web.
  • Plastic affects the marine animals that eat it in several ways:  it can potentially damage their digestive tracks, plastic can absorb PBT’s and DDT, which then go into an animal’s body.  If humans then eat fish that have consumed these chemicals, it poses a health risk, as they are known to cause birth defects and act as endocrine disruptors.
  • Explore plastic alternatives—biodegradable plastic is now commercially available in grocery stores in the form of utensils, straws and trash bags.  They are commonly made out of corn starch.  Make corn starch ornaments or utensils in the classroom.  There are many recipes and lesson plans about biodegradable polymers.  The recipe below comes from a lesson created by student-run science outreach club at the University of California at Berkeley.

Biodegradable Plastic – in this experiment, students will have the opportunity to make plastic out of household materials. They will learn about the importance of environmental friendliness while they make the plastic.

Supplies:  Corn Starch, Water, Liquid Glycerin, White Vinegar, Food Coloring, Nonstick pan, Spatula, Stove Top or Hot Plate, Aluminum Foil

Methods (Note: On a per student measure):

  1.  Measure out 6 tablespoons (60 mL) of cold water and 1 tablespoon (10 grams) of cornstarch into the pan.
  2.  Add 1 teaspoon (5 mL) of vinegar and 1 teaspoon of glycerin into the mixture. Note: more glycerin will make it softer and more flexible while less glycerin will make it stiffer.
  3.  Add about 5 drops of food coloring to make it colored.
  4.  Place pan on hot plate and keep the burner on low, constantly stirring. The mixture will start to thicken and become a gooey, opaque substance. Mix until it boils and becomes clear – should be bouncy and should stick to itself rather than the pan. 
  5.  Pour some onto a piece of aluminum foil and let it dry – the drying process will take 1 day, so students can take it home with them at the end of the day.



  • National Geographic has lessons and resources for a unit called “The Perils of Plastic”.  In this unit, students learn about the Pacific garbage patch and collect their waste for a week to assess the amount of trash they generate.
  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium has an introductory lesson on wind and waves—students create an ocean and generate the wind to move it.
  • It’s important to reduce, reuse or recycle our waste.  One family in the bay area has committed to producing only a single bag of trash a year for their whole family!  You can learn about the steps they’ve taken to practice the 3 R’s on their website:   The Zero Waste Home
  • For additional teaching curriculum related to waste, Facing the Future has produced a two week unit on how goods are produced, distributed and discarded.  This unit tackles the environmental and social justice issues surrounding consumption:  Buy, Use and Toss Curriculum
  • This is a lesson plan from the Clark County Historical Museum on the “throw-away society”.  It can be modified for many grade levels and gives students an introduction to how we view the things that we own and buy as ultimately disposable (and how this view was very different 100 years ago).
  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium no longer uses plastic straws in their café.  They now give customer paper straws, and have taken on the “Last Plastic Straw Challenge”.   Read about it here. Using paper straws is a simple way to reduce plastic use.
  • Many cities are moving to ban plastic shopping bags.  San Francisco was the first to do this and other cities are following suit.  For more information and updates about the movement, see this webpage.


Credit: This teacher resource has been adapted from content originally developed by Lee Pruett.




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