Grades 1 – 3: Trash Bag Relay

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Recommended grade level: 1 – 3 

Presentation time: 30 – 45 minutes



Sorting trash is an investigative, hands-on activity that allows students to analyze their waste. By knowing what they throw away, students are more likely to be conscious of their trash and how much of it they generate. This relay turns the trash-sort into a game where students compete against each other while discovering alternatives to a trash can.


  • Two bags of identical (clean) trash with an assortment of packaging/containers, old clothes, paper products, toy food, etc.
  • Two trash cans
  • Two recycling bins
  • Two compost buckets
  • Two reuse containers (can set in piles)


  • Proceeding the activity, review the concepts of the three Rs (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle), the types of materials that are recyclable in your area, the proper way to recycle (removing lids, rinsing, etc.), which numbers of plastic are recyclable (and where to locate the recycling symbol on the container) and any other important information. Explain that if recycling is not done correctly, contamination results and the recyclables must be disposed of in the landfill.
  • Begin by placing the two trash bags at one end of the room (at least four feet apart from each other) and the trash cans and recycle bins at the other. Separate students into two teams and line teams up behind the trash bags. If there are more than 15-20 students, you may want three sets of props and three teams.
  • Explain to students that their job is to (one by one) pull items from the trash bag, walk to the opposite end of the game area and place the item in either the trash can or recycling bin. Each student will have at least one turn, and the students are not allowed to choose an item before the student before them returns from the opposite end.
  • When both teams are finished, instruct students to sit facing the trash cans and recycling bins (you should sit behind them). Pull items from the trash can and recycling bin, asking students if each item is in the right place or if there is another alternative of what to do with it. Allow students (if possible) to introduce the concepts of reusing and composting. Explain what compost is and how to do it. Also, allow students to ascertain the point that certain items can be reused or donated.
  • Put all items back in the trash bags and have students line up as they did initially. This time add a compost bucket and reuse pile for each item. Tell students the relay is not a race to see who finishes first, but the winners are the team who recycles correctly and has the smallest trash bag. While performing the activity, if students see an item in the wrong place, tell them they can correct it.
  • When the trash bag is empty, have students sit on the floor again and review their actions. Be sure they know that the first R, reduce, is the most important. Eliminating waste from the start prevents the need to reuse or recycle it.

Discussion Questions

  1. What did you learn from the activity?
  2. Can you explain to your parents or friends how to recycle correctly and why it’s so important? What is contamination?
  3. What items can be recycled at home or school? Is there a drop-off center in the neighborhood, or is curbside recycling available?
  4. What is composting and how is it done? What types of food cannot be composted? Does anyone’s family compost?
  5. What are some ways you (as students) can reduce waste from the beginning?