The Big Question

Where does our rubbish go?

Where does our rubbish go?

Classroom view

Activity overview

30 mins+
Ages 7 – 9

Science topics:

Materials , Climate challenge

Planning an investigation will really get your class thinking like scientists. How will they investigate where our rubbish goes?

Run the activity

In this activity, the italic sections marked with the polar bear explain how you can link the children's learning to the Climate Challenge, and support the children to take positive action.

1. Explain that you will be working as a class to answer a big question. What do the pupils already know or think they know about what happens to our rubbish? 

  • Is all rubbish the same? 

  • Is some rubbish harmful/dangerous? 

  • Who collects the rubbish from our homes? 

  • What can/ can’t we recycle? 

  • How can we reduce the amount of rubbish we make? 

  • When does rubbish become pollution? 

2. How will the group explore the question? Prompt pupils to explain their ideas, qualify them and refine them based on views expressed by other people. What is their plan for the investigation? 

3. Ask the class to imagine they had to present their investigation at a school assembly or to their family, how would they show their action plan? 

Background science

When teaching children about the Climate Challenge, it is important that we give them the facts (age appropriately and sensitively). During your discussion, allow time for children to express their thoughts and feelings and have them validated.

The amount of rubbish each person produces has fallen by almost a tenth from what it was a decade ago. The UK target for recycling household waste is 50% and latest data (2021) shows a promising 46% was recycled. Individually, we might be getting better at recycling, but our population is still growing. As a result, despite our best efforts, we are still throwing too many things away and creating 26 million tonnes of waste each year (the weight of 26 large cruise ships!). Germany, Austria, and South Korea remain world-leaders when it comes to recycling household waste, recycling 60 – 70%.  

Many products can quite easily be recycled and reused, including paper, cardboard, garden waste, plastic and glass bottles. But other rubbish is harder to deal with, so much of it is going to landfill or being burned to produce electricity. Some materials will rot away but many materials are not biodegradable. Only 27% of batteries are recycled in the UK, resulting in more than 20,000 tonnes of battery waste going to landfill each year. This will take about 100 years to break down. The majority of the two million TV sets discarded each year end up in UK landfill sites, despite being accepted at many recycling centres across the country. Other electrical goods like washing machines, computers and fridges also end up in landfill, yet it is estimated that 25% could be repaired and re-used. 

Concern about the impact of plastic pollution has led to the banning of microbeads in beauty products (2016) and plastic straws and plastic stirrers (2020).  However, synthetic materials, like fleeces, still produce microplastics when washed. There is also concern about the tiny plastic pellets that are used to manufacture all plastic products. These plastic 'nurdles', the size of lentils, are regularly spilt and end up being washed up on our shores and mistaken for food by animals. 

Take it further

After giving children the information they need about Climate Challenge issues, give them time to express how they feel, empathising with them and validating their feelings before taking it further.  


You might also like to look at this BBC Terrific Scientific investigation about the microplastics produced from washing man-made fibres. You can find out more about ‘nurdles’ and the efforts to remove them here. This CIEC resource explores recycling and combines it with studying forces.

Extend the learning with Synthetic selection a Mystery bag activity, which looks at items made of plastic. You could try another Problem solver: Pack it in to find an alternative to using plastic film or Biodegradable plant pots to reuse waste cardboard. 


Watch this film about how to find ‘nurdles’ on the beach. 


This website provides a wide range of useful statistics about recycling. Children might be inspired to produce posters, poems/raps or letters persuading people to reduce, reuse and recycle. 

Discuss with the children what could be done to help and if there is a positive action they can take themselves. Explain that when lots of people carry out small positive changes, it can have a big impact overall.

Positive action

Get the whole school motivated to recycle batteries with the Big Battery Hunt. When you register, you receive free pupil collection boxes and resources to support your efforts. Perhaps you could organise a litter pick to clean up your local environment? Keep Britain Tidy offer some good advice to help you prepare for a safe litter pick. For more ideas on small positive steps to help the planet, read our article on The Climate Challenge.

Image credit: Tom Rolfe via Flickr CC BY-NC