What Happens to the Plastic We Throw Away?


Scroll through how tons of trash travels from inland trash heaps to oceanic garbage patches. (National Geographic)

Use our terrific activities to follow the “tremendous travels of trash” and the “perils of plastic.”

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

We are drowning in plastic—click to enlarge! 
Map by Jason Treat, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas





  • How can individuals prevent plastic pollution?
    • Take the pledge. Sign up to receive helpful tips from National Geographic about how to reduce single-use plastics.
    • Consume less plastic. Reduce the amount of single-use plastics you consume: water and soda bottles, straws, plastic bags, coffee stirrers, lids, laminated plastic containers.
      • A huge amount of food packaging is single-use plastic. Make smart decisions about buying products with excess packaging—try to avoid those cute individual containers held within larger containers.
    • Recycle. In addition to recycling plastics that you use, try to actively look for products made from recycled materials.
    • Think globally, act locally. See how your local community is relying on single-use plastic, and try to address that specific issue.
      • Are students filling garbage bins with plastic packaging from lunch?
      • Does your school have mismanaged plastic waste? Use our activity to help guide a school-site cleanup and apply its lessons in a global context.
      • Are neighborhood coffee shops offering incentives to customers who bring their own cups and straws?
      • Does your school have a recycling program?
      • Are local grocery and convenience stores offering incentives to encourage customers to bring their own bags?
      • How permeable are the storm drains in your neighborhood? Do they effectively filter out large plastic trash?
      • This could be a great Geo-Inquiry project.
    • Vote. Support local, state, and federal laws that encourage conservation and punish pollution. Support local, state, and federal representatives who make protecting the environment a part of their platform. Contact your local officials to ask how they are working to reduce our reliance on plastics, and help them come up with local solutions to local problems.



Nat Geo: What Happens to the Plastic We Throw Out?

Nat Geo: The Tremendous Travels of Trash

Nat Geo: Perils of Plastic

Nat Geo: Mapping Ocean Currents

Nat Geo: Marine Debris: A Legacy of Litter

Nat Geo: Plastic Accumulation in Ocean Gyres

Nat Geo: Planet or Plastic? Take the Pledge

Nat Geo: The Geo-Inquiry Process

5 thoughts on “What Happens to the Plastic We Throw Away?

  1. There are many issues that we as a whole can do to take of this planet. Starting with plastic bags and recycling. Get rid of all these plastic bags people dispose anywhere they feel necessary and make people recycle, hand out the recycling bins at all addresses in America. It’s very important for us all to be on board.

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