Grades 3 – 5: What’s In Your Trash Bag?

Grades 3 – 5: What’s In Your Trash Bag?

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trash guyRecommended grade level:  3 – 5
Part one activity:  1 hour
Part two activity:  30 minutes

Part One


This awareness activity is a fun way to introduce students to the waste auditing process. Students will learn the amount and types of waste that they, personally, contribute to the waste stream during a typical day at school. The quantitative results of the activity will be a good introduction and motivator for students to examine the alternative actions of Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling!


  • 1 trash bag for each student
  • 1 “zip-lock” bag for each student
  • large table top or cleared floor space
  • large tarp (optional)
  • “What’s in Your Trash Bag?” Worksheet (hint: this can be duplicated for each student or into an overhead or your smart board and done as a class)


  1. Instruct students to collect all the trash they would normally throw away at school. Ask them to start the activity when they get to school and continue until they leave. Have them bring their trash bag everywhere with them for the entire day – the cafeteria, gym, classroom, etc. Food waste can be collected in a “zip-lock” bag to avoid contaminating other waste in the trash bag.
  2. Have students bring their bag to class the next day and weigh it. (You can use an ordinary scale to do this by weighing yourself holding the bag, not holding the bag and subtracting the difference.)
  3. Record the weight of the bag on the worksheet.
  4. Calculate and record the total of all your classmates’ trash bags.
  5. Using these figures, calculate and record the total trash for the entire school population. (This will be an estimate)
  6. Have students open their trash bags and look at what’s inside. Students can do this individually, in groups or on the floor as a class.
  7. Separate the trash into categories of paper, food waste, plastic, aluminum, steel, glass, and other.
  8. Do the same thing for food waste, plastic, aluminum, steel, glass, and other.
  9. Using these figures, calculate and record the total weight of these items for the entire school population.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did the amount of trash you generated in one day compare with the amount your classmates generated? How does it compare with the estimated 4 pounds per person per day in the USA? Based on your collection today, how much waste do you generate in 1 month? 1 year? 10 years? How many tons is this? (1 ton = 2000 lbs.)
  2. What trash items did you and your classmates generate the most of?
  3. How much of the waste is packaging?
  4. What are some alternatives to this kind of packaging?
  5. What kinds of resources were used to make these items? (wood/trees, petroleum, metal ore, etc.)
  6. How can you reduce the amount of trash you produce each day?
  7. Which of the items can be Reduced? Reused? Recycled?
  8. Bonus*
    Based on the class total for paper waste, estimate the percent by which waste could be reduced if students would recycle all of their school paper? All other recyclables?

Quantified Results

  • Weight of your trash bag       __________
    •  Your bag x _____ in group = Group Total       __________
  •  Group Total
    • _____ in group = Student Average       __________
  • Group Totals For:
    • Paper Waste       __________
    • Food Waste       __________
    • Aluminum Waste       __________
    • Steel Waste       __________
    • Glass Waste       __________
    • Other Waste       __________
  • School Totals For:
    • Paper Waste       __________
    • Food Waste       __________
    • Aluminum Waste       __________
    • Steel Waste       __________
    • Glass Waste       __________
    • Other Waste       __________

Part Two


This is an extension activity to “What’s In Your Trash Bag?” where students learn from which materials and resources their trash is made. By filling in the chart, students can see what others have thrown away and compare that with their own trash. Students will learn the many uses we have for our natural resources and why we need to be conscious of what we throw away.


  • Plastic trash bag
  • Various non-food items commonly thrown away, such as a cereal box, plastic containers, newspaper, chip bag, school worksheets, plastic utensils, etc.
  • Markers
  • Chart paper/Dry erase board/Smart board

Procedure and Study Questions

  1. Make a chart with six vertical columns and 5-6 horizontal rows. Label the columns as follows: Item, Material, Used, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
  2. Agree on definitions for the “Three Rs.”
    1. Reduce – to make smaller
    2. Reuse – to use again
    3. Recycle – to take something old and make it into something new
  3. Have students select an item from the trash bag identifying it according to the criteria in each column. Write the information provided by students on the chart.
  4. Define the resources used to produce each item as you proceed through the activity. Ask students to determine whether the item they chose could be reduced, reused or recycled and how.
  5. Are the items in the trash bag products that students or parents would have purchased or are they the packages left over after products have been consumed? Discuss the difference. If the items are left over packaging, could they have been eliminated?
  6. After all items have been identified, separate out the ones that could be recycled in your community. By what weight or percentage could this amount of trash be reduced by recycling those items?
  7. What shopping decisions would students and their families need to make in order to reduce the amount of waste generated by “pre-cycling?”
  8. What symbols or other information would students need to look for on products or packages to reduce waste through their shopping decisions?
  9. What are some other ways students can reduce and reuse in order to generate less waste?

Classroom Waste Audit – Lesson