Our plastic problem and how to solve it

Tuesday, October 9, 2018


Directions: Read the summary with your students, watch the video (if helpful, follow along with the transcript) and then answer the discussion questions.


A movement to ban the use of plastic straws in restaurants is spreading across the United States. Recycling of small plastics such as straws is challenging because sorting machines must first separate recyclable waste from non-recyclables, and straws are often too small to be captured. But environmental experts say that the problem isn’t in recycling, it’s in the use of plastic in the first place. Humans have created more than 9 billion tons of plastics since the 1950s, most of which is still in circulation today. Using resources to continuously recycle all this plastic effectively cancels out any environmental benefits to the practice. Compostable straws made of materials such as wood pulp have potential, but they’re more expensive than plastic straws and consumers complain that they don’t work as well.


1. Essential question: How has plastic become a problem for our environment?

2. Do you think this video will have some effect on how often you accept straws and other small plastic waste products? Will you consider alternatives, like compostable straws or simply drinking without a lid?

3. Do you believe that businesses should be banned from handing out plastic straws? Sometimes even the best ideas have unintended negative consequences. Does the ban on plastic straws have any unintended consequences? Not sure, click here.

4. How often do you recycle? Do you ever struggle to determine which bin a piece of trash is supposed to go in? What are some solutions that could help solve this problem?

Extension activities:

Ask your students to look at the solutions in this NewsHour article, What if we could put our plastic trash to good use? How does chemistry play a key role in solving our plastic problem?

Video: Tiny Easter Island deals with giant trash problem (Transcript)


Visit PBS NewsHour Extra for more education resources designed to help teachers and students identify the who, what, where and why-it-matters of the major national and international news stories@NewsHourExtra