Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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The Science and Problem of What We Throw Away


Each person in the United States generates five or more pounds (2.3 kilograms) of waste a day: about the weight of a medium bag of sugar. More than half of that garbage is buried and stored in landfills. Increasingly, however, cities are promoting recycling programs, often getting schools involved so students can learn about recycling and follow these practices at home.

A person in a Scandinavian country (such as Sweden, Denmark, or Norway) generates about the same amount of waste as an American. People in developing countries generate less waste than Americans or Europeans; for example, a person in India generates about three-fourths of a pound (0.34 kilograms) per day. Still, every country must find a way to process the garbage that each of its residents generates every day, month, and year.

In this photo series, students will consider what happens to items that they and everyone else on the planet throw away. They will think like engineers, defining a problem by categorizing and quantifying components of trash, and considering different solutions to the problem of dealing with rubbish. The photos will give students a starting point for weighing the pros and cons of recycling, composting, landfills, and other current ways to get rid of garbage. (For reusing garbage, see the Reusing Garbage: Art Projects in References and Further Reading.)

As you analyze the photographs in this collection, keep in mind—and prompt your students to think about—the source, context, scale, vantage point of the photographer, color, or texture, etc. (See the Glossary for more about scale, vantage point, and texture.)

Note: Trash, garbage, waste, and rubbish are used interchangeably here. Experts usually use “trash” to mean discarded dry items, “garbage” to mean wet items, and “waste” or “rubbish” as a general, inclusive term for all discards.

Grade Level

Middle & High School

Classroom Connections

Earth and Space Science
Life Science
Social Studies

Curriculum Snapshot

  • What happens to our waste
  • Composting and the carbon cycle


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