Back to the Teacher Pages News | Resources | Calendar | Teaching Activities | EEK! Home


My Ton of Trash


Here's an activity to accompany the information on the What a Waste? section in the "Our Earth" portion of EEK! Also, don't forget that America Recycles Day is November 15th every year.

Subjects:Mathematics, social studies, science, environmental education, health.

Students will visualize how much solid waste is generated for each person in Wisconsin.

Students will understand how the number of people living in our state and country affects the amount of trash we generate.

Students will understand the environmental and social effects of trash disposal.


  • 4.7 pound bag of miscellaneous trash. Wash all containers and avoid items with sharp edges.

  • gloves

Feel good about recycling? Well, you should, but we still throw lots of stuff away. People in Wisconsin throw out everything from toothbrushes to televisions, food scraps to plastic bags, cell phones to oil filters. If you added up all the waste from your house, the stores where you shop and the restaurants where you eat, it would amount to 4.7 pounds per person of solid waste thrown into the trash every day. If you multiply that by 365 days per year, then by 5.4 million Wisconsin citizens, you will find that Wisconsin generates more than 4.6 million tons of trash each year. This much trash is enough to pile a typical city street 3 feet deep, curb to curb, for 500 miles – more than the distance from Superior to Chicago!

So, what are we still throwing away? Toothpaste tubes, TV sets, old shoes, broken toys, food scraps, packaging that's not recyclable, carpeting and drapes, outdated computers, cell phones, furniture... Whew! The list is endless. What else can we do with trash? The best thing you can do is to try and not create any trash. Of course that's impossible no matter how hard we try, we'll always have something to throw away. But, there are many ways to make less trash.

Over the last two decades, people have become more aware of environmental problems related to landfills, yet the amount of household solid waste generated in the United States is still too much. People believe that we are running out of space for landfills, when actually there are many sites to locate modern, sanitary landfills that will meet state and federal requirements. These new landfills are designed to be clean and to contain and collect leachate and methane gas that result from the decomposition of solid waste. But, there’s a problem. Nobody wants a landfill in their neighborhood and everyone hates to pay more for trash disposal. So, both the cost and people's feelings about landfills can prevent new ones from being built.

Is trash disposal the real problem, or is it something else? What we really need to do is keep a close eye on the amount of natural resources we use, throw away, or waste each day and each year. Together, we need to design ways to use natural resources in a way that is good for both the environment and for our wallet!

Procedure: Define trash and list some examples, then discuss:

  • What qualities does an item have that makes you decide it is trash?

  • What different kinds of trash are there?

Place a plastic sheet on the floor and dump out a 4.7 pound bag of trash on it.


  • Does this seem like a lot of trash? This much trash is thrown out each day for every person in Wisconsin.

  • How do you think the number "4.7 pounds" was calculated? Will the number ever change? Why?

  • How do you feel about the fact that you are responsible for this much trash that is thrown out each day?


  • If you generate 4.7 pounds of trash each day, how many pounds do you make every week, month and year?

  • Convert the annual number from pounds into tons. How many tons of trash do you make each year?

  • To help you visualize how much a ton weighs, add the weights of students in the class until you reach one ton. How many students does it take to make a ton? How many "students-worth" of trash do you make each year?

  • How many people are in your family? If 4.7 pounds of trash are generated each day for every person, how many pounds or tons of trash does your family make every week, month and year?

  • How many people live in Wisconsin? If 4.7 pounds of trash are generated each day for every person, how many pounds or tons of trash are generated each day in Wisconsin?


  • What happens to all the trash you throw away?

  • Where is "away"? Is there such a place?

  • What do you think happens to waste at the landfill?

  • What are possible problems with piling waste in landfills?

  • What would you do with your family's trash if there was no truck that came to take it away? How might this affect the amount of trash your family makes?

Research the rate of human population growth in Wisconsin and the U.S. since 1850. Discuss:

  • What relationship might there be between an increasing human population and the amount of trash generated?

  • How might the amount of trash generated be influenced by changes in lifestyles since 1850?

  • How might the amount of trash generated be influenced by family income?

  • How have increases in numbers of people and amounts of trash affected the environment?

  • What are the predictions for future human population growth?

  • What predictions might you make for the amounts of trash we'll produce in the future?

  • What impacts might an increasing population have on our use of natural resources?

  • If every person in Wisconsin threw away one less pound of trash per day, how much less trash would end up in our state's landfills?

  • What could you do to reduce the amount of waste you make?

Pre- and Post-Activity Questions:
  • How many pounds of trash do you think are thrown out each day for every person in Wisconsin?

  • What relationship, if any, is there between the number of people and the amount of trash?

Going Beyond:
The 4.7 pounds of solid waste represent the amount you generate at home each day, the stores where you shop and the restaurants where you eat. Since 1990, the people of Wisconsin have been recycling more to reduce the amount of trash going to landfills. Over 90 percent of households in Wisconsin recycle, which helps divert 1.6 million tons of materials from landfills each year. What impact does recycling have on landfill space? What are the long-term benefits of reducing trash, reusing items, and recycling everything you can?

Adapted from: Recycling Study Guide, "Out of Sight, out of Mind-Part 1." Department of Natural Resources.

After you've completed this activity, have students check out the EEK! site to get good ideas on reducing waste this holiday season. Here are some additional ideas for classroom waste reduction:

  • Turn scrap paper into wrapping paper or holiday decorations by using paints, crayons, potato stamps, or ink stamps to make holiday designs on it.

  • Make origami ornaments or gift boxes out of the decorated scrap paper.

  • Make gift tags from decorated scrap paper or old greeting cards.

  • Make reusable gift boxes from cardboard waste boxes by covering the top and bottom separately with decorated scrap paper and reuse bows and ribbon.

  • Look for additional craft activities using recycled materials in Wee Crafts.

Back to Teaching Activities.

Back to the Teacher Pages News | Resources | Calendar | Teaching Activities | EEK! Home
Workshop and Events Calendar Go to the DNR Homepage Teaching Activities Educational Resources What's New for Teachers Back to the Teacher Pages Index