January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Investigating Plastics in the Oceans

Posted: Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

by Mary Whaley, Joey Lehnhard and Beth Callaghan

From durable goods like eyeglasses and vehicle parts to single-use items like straws and water bottles, plastic is ubiquitous in our modern world. Plastic is lightweight, long-lasting and relatively economical to manufacture. It has revolutionized the way we live from medical use to manufacturing. But, how wisely are we using these durable, versatile materials produced from fossil fuels – a nonrenewable resource?

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Plastic is important in our modern world. However, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, only about 9 percent of the estimated 32 million tons of plastic waste the U.S. generated in 2012 was recovered for recycling. [1] Much of the waste is single-use disposable items that end up causing numerous problems in our environment. For example, six of the top 10 items collected in the 2013 International Coastal Clean-up Day were single-use plastic. [2]

Even if our non-recycled plastic waste does make it to a landfill, plastic is built to last. Its complex polymer chains make it flexible or rigid, clear or opaque, but always nonbiodegradable. While sunlight, wind and wave action may eventually cause it to photodegrade, breaking down into small pieces, natural processes involving bacteria or fungi cannot digest plastic and return it to the nutrient cycle –it remains in the environment indefinitely.

Plastics of all shapes and sizes end up in the ocean as marine debris. In fact, it’s estimated that 90% of floating debris is plastic. Plastics have varying densities so some float in sea water, others sink and some remain neutrally buoyant, causing problems throughout the water column by entangling or being consumed by marine animals and also by both leaching and attracting toxic chemicals.

But there is hope. It comes in the form of our students.

Unlike other serious environmental issues such as ocean acidification, air pollution, or climate change, students have a significant daily impact on plastic pollution. They can do this by making individual choices like bringing their own shopping bag, buying a soda can instead of a plastic bottle, refusing straws, or choosing reusable lunch containers instead of disposable baggies. They can also be involved in larger initiatives like advocating for plastic bag bans in our cities or working with their school cafeteria to reduce plastic use.

Helping students understand that they have an impact on the world around us is a powerful educational goal. In fact, inspiring and empowering students to take action to protect the environment may develop self-efficacy and enhance a sense of personal control. [3] Engaging students in activities that place content in a real-world context helps students remember details by giving the information meaning and context, and allowing students to connect the new information or experience to prior knowledge.

So how do you get started addressing this issue in your classrooms?

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A great way to get your students engaged and help them see the relevance of this issue is to conduct Plastic Use Audit (see Resources) on your school campus or cafeteria. Students sort and record the amounts of different types of trash to identify the most commonly tossed items.

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Next challenge your students to investigate what plastic is and how wisely society uses plastics. In “Plastics: Reduce Use or Recycle?” (see resources list), students observe and describe the physical and chemical properties that can be used to identify different kinds of plastics (transparency, density, surface appearance and rigidity). They learn that the number in the chasing arrows symbol is an identification code developed by Society of the Plastics Industry to assist in differentiating various plastics. It is a common misconception that the number means that object can be recycled. Students also distinguish single-use plastics from durable goods. Finally, students examine society’s use of plastics, taking into account that it is made from nonrenewable resources.

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Once students understand what plastic is and think about their use of plastic, they can begin to investigate how the density of plastic affects its location in the ocean water column. In Plastics in the Water Column, students examine the relationship between plastics of different densities and the possible effects on marine ecosystems. Students predict and test whether each piece of plastic floats, sinks or remains neutrally buoyant. The use of a density table gives students practice interpreting scientific tables and allows them to see if their results are supported by evidence or not. Students then engage in a science talk to elicit ideas on why different plastics may end up in different places in the water column. Next, students discuss how marine animals tend to feed in one of three ocean layers – benthic (sea floor), pelagic (open water), and surface, leading to a better understanding of plastics’ impact on marine animals and the food web.

Leaving students feeling empowered and with a sense of hope is an essential part of the sequence of activities. Brainstorming ways individuals and communities can reduce single-use plastic consumption is one way to focus on positive change. Identifying individual actions such as carrying a reusable water bottle can be an effective and empowering strategy for younger students, [4] while action and advocacy projects are powerful experiences supporting older students and can lead to greater community impact. Challenging students to make a public service announcement (PSA) to educate others about plastic pollution and the actions they can take to preserve ocean health is a compelling technological enrichment.

In addition, providing opportunities for students to work actively with abstract content such as density, coupled with cause and effect relationships, raises the learning to a level of authenticity called for in the Next Generation Science Standards. When students use firsthand exploration and discussion to develop an understanding of phenomena using evidence from their own experience, learning, interest and motivation all increase. While understanding the watersheds and ocean health has always been an important content area, NGSS further emphasizes the importance of the world’s oceans to Earth’s systems.

This investigation is a great way to talk about density in the real world, integrate conservation and ocean science education into your curriculum, and empower your students to make a positive difference in their local and global communities.

Resources:

Monterey Bay Aquarium Plastics Activities:
Plastics in the Water Column
Plastics Reduce Use or Recycle
Plastic Use Audit
Gyre in a Bottle

Algalita Marine Research Foundation  www.algalita.org: Learn more about debris found in the Pacific Gyre as well as research reports and educational resources.

Center for Microbial Oceanography (C-MORE), http://cmore.soest.hawaii.edu/education/teachers/science_kits/marine_debris_kit.htm: Find several free activities exploring the cause, distribution and biological impacts of marine debris.

The Story of Stuff Project  www.storyofstuff.com: Watch the story of bottled water and access free curriculum resources.

California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (Cal Recycle) http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/

5 Gyres Project http://5gyres.org

References:

[1] Environmental Protection Agency. (2014). Common Wastes & Materials: Plastics. Retrieved 11/26/14. www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/plastics

[2] The Ocean Conservancy. (2014). Turning the Tide on Trash. Retrieved 11/26/14. http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/marine-debris/icc-data-2014.pdf

[3] [4] Ardoin, N. (2009). Behavior-change theories and free-choice environmental learning. In J. Falk, J. Heimlich, and S. Foutz (eds.), Free-Choice Learning and the Environment (pp. 57-76). Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Mary Whaley is the Teacher Programs Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Informal Science Education Director for CSTA. Joey Lehnhard and Beth Callaghan are Senior Education Specialists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. All are members of CSTA.

Written by Mary Whaley

Mary Whaley is the Teachers Program Manager at Monterey Bay Aquarium and is the Informal Science Director for CSTA.

One Response

  1. I am thrilled to see science lessons focused on the plastic in our world’s ocean. If I may offer another resource: PLASTIC, AHOY! INVESTIGATING THE GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH, a Millbrook Press nonfiction book for students in grades 4 and up. Set against a backdrop of the scientific method, the book follows three female scientists as they observe plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre and develop experiments to learn more about it. The last chapter offers a series of ocean stewardship ideas that students can implement. Annie Crawley’s beautiful photographs provide a glimpse into life at sea as a research scientist.

    Junior Library Guild Selection
    AAAS Science Books & Film Finalist in the Middle Grades category
    Nerdy Book Club Award for middle grade nonfiction
    Authors for Earth Day Eco Book of the Month

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