What If...

There was no plastic?

What if there was no plastic?

Classroom view

Activity overview

15 mins
Ages 7 – 9

Science topics:

Materials , Climate challenge

Get your class thinking and talking with this fun question! Having a broad question means you'll get a wide range of ideas coming from your pupils.

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. In pairs, discuss what might be a Plus, Minus and Interesting way to think about the question. Stuck for ideas? They could think about: 

  • How many things do you use every day that are made out of plastic? 

  • Why are so many things made out of plastic? 

  • Which materials could be used instead of plastic? 

  • Why are some people trying to use fewer things made out of plastic? 

  • Plastic lasts a long time: why is this good and why is it bad? 

2. Ask the children to share their partner's ideas then encourage a broader discussion as a class, remember there is no wrong or right answer! 

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.

Plastic is suitable for a wide range of uses and so is used to make many different things. It’s a material that is relatively cheap, durable, waterproof, easy to mould into different shapes and lasts a long time. 

Plastic lasts a long time because it is non-biodegradable. If we throw away plastic waste- it doesn’t go away!  Scientists are struggling to make accurate calculations, but estimate that only 9% of the plastic so far produced has been recycled. When plastic is recycled at the moment, it’s quality is reduced and it can only be used in specific ways. As the quality decreases, it can only be recycled a limited number of times before it is useless. Most plastic ends up buried in landfill sites or washed out to sea. In fact, researchers think that by 2050, there could be more plastic in our oceans than fish. 

Some of the plastic in the ocean floats and gets carried by the currents in the water; some of it sinks. All of it tends to break into smaller and smaller pieces. Plastic is dangerous to marine wildlife. Over 700 species have been found to have eaten or become entangled in plastic. 

In some areas, the currents of the ocean have created a concentrated ‘plastic soup’. This is not a big floating garbage patch - that would be easier to remove! The majority of the plastic ends up as microplastic (less than 5mm long) mixed throughout the water column. Many scientists are trying to find the best way of removing microplastic from the oceans. We have our part to play by ensuring that we change our attitude towards plastic. We now know that plastic is a valuable material and it shouldn’t be used to make disposable things. We can reduce how much plastic we buy, reuse plastic items whenever we can, and recycle plastic that we no longer want.

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.  


Use the CIEC Sustainability resource pack with this summary sheet to learn how to identify different types of plastic. Try the Problem Solver Pack it in which could help children reduce single-use plastics.


Find out more by watching this short film about why plastic waste is a problem and what the solutions might be. 


Read the intergenerational letters from Sustainability First to learn about how our wasteful habits have changed over the last 77 years.  

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

Scientists across the globe are working on solving to the plastic waste problem. Some have developed biodegradable plastics from various waste products. This CIEC Potatoes to plastics pack includes reading and writing ideas as well as instructions showing how to extract starch from potato peelings and make and test bioplastic from that starch. For more ideas on small positive steps to help the planet, read our article on The Climate Challenge.

Image: mbeo