Teaching Your Students About Marine Debris: a Classroom Activity

A student uses a marker to decorate a reusable lunch bag with ocean creatures
A student decorates a reusable bag as part of "Design Your Own Bag," a marine debris activity hosted by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. (Smithsonian Institution)

Have you ever gone to your favorite coastal or lakeside beach and instead of having a fun day in the sun you were faced with a trove of trash? How heartbreaking it is to see waters and shorelines littered with items that you have at home, that maybe you’ve even recently thrown away.  

Encountering ocean trash on the beach has become more common. According to the Ocean Conservancy's Trash Travels report, International Coastal Cleanup volunteers collected 4,253,650 pounds of trash along an estimated 9,151 miles of coastal and inland shorelines in the United States in 2009.  That equates to about 465 pounds of trash per mile. This means that your chances of encountering litter in coastal areas is high, and that would certainly put a damper on those long walks on the beach. Trash is showing up in even the remotest of locations, from southern Belize to the open ocean off the coast of Curaçao.

The trash is an eyesore, but there are even bigger impacts. Marine debris damages habitat, entangles wildlife, helps transport invasive species, and harms marine animals that mistakenly ingest the trash thinking it is food. Have you ever heard of a ghost net? This is not something imagined by Hollywood, instead it’s lost or abandoned fishing line and gear that can entangle wildlife like North Atlantic Right Whales and Hawaiian monk seals

As an educator, I wanted to help school kids learn about marine debris and give them solutions to help. As part of the Museum’s 2nd Saturday Arts and Science Program we hosted “DYOB: Design Your Own Bag.” What better way to start off the new school year than creating your own reusable lunch bag? 

To do this activity in your classroom, purchase white insulated lunch bags. Just about any reusable lunch bag will do, but make sure they are a light color and have a fabric covering so that your design will show up. Decorate the bags using washable markers along with rubber stamps of marine animals to allow your students to be creative with their designs. While the students are busy decorating their bags, you can discuss marine debris, how it impacts animals, and some ways to help combat the problem. You can even show this short video about marine debris developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

Now that you have your reusable bag, fill it with some great food, but make sure you also use a reusable bottle and containers instead of disposable juice boxes and plastic sandwich bags.  

Another great way to help reduce marine debris is by picking it up! Are you interested in participating in a beach cleanup? There’s an app for that: NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative have developed Marine Debris Tracker, a new mobile application. Need to find a clean-up for your local beach or waterway? Saturday, September 17, 2011 is the annual International Coastal Cleanup hosted by the Ocean Conservancy. Sign up to clean up a beach or inland waterway near you. Can't find a cleanup near you? You can organize your own!

Does your budding little artist still want to do more? Then check out NOAA Marine Debris Program’s “Keep the Sea Free of Debris” Art Contest. The contest, for students in grades K-8, opens September 16, 2011 and close October 21.  

Educators, looking for more that you can do with your students? Learn about five simple things you can do for the ocean--everyday. Teach your students more about ocean trash by downloading this lesson plan from Clean Virginia Waterways, Classifying Aquatic Debris, and take a look at this great overview lesson, Litter and Debris in Our Waterways

September 2011