The Story of Stuff

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SWBAT examine trends of material disposal in the United States and analyze which consumption choices reflect people's lifestyle and culture.

Big Idea

The way we consume and dispose of material goods reflect our culture and way of life. The culture of America is wasteful and we must consider ways to reduce our consumption of material goods in order to sustain life on our planet.

Day 1: Engage

10 minutes

I start the lesson by distributing one bag of assorted (clean) trash items to each table group and giving them a few minutes to examine the contents. (I do not tell them these items are actual trash, rather, I just place them on the table and let them explore.) I ask the students to consider, as a group, what all the items in the bag have in common. After hearing a few responses, I ask the students to consider which, if any, of the materials in the bag are luxury items and which are essential items. One by one, I ask each group to display to the class the contents of their bag, explaining which items are essential and which are luxuries.

After all groups present their findings, I ask for volunteers to supply us with working definitions of the words "luxury" and "necessity". I write these definitions in a place where all students can see.  

I explain to the students that all of these items were found in our classroom garbage can. I ask them to think about what they can infer by looking at a person's garbage. Students have 1-2 minutes to discuss their answers within their groups, then I call on random students from each group to provide a response.


Adapted from a lesson by Facing THE Future.

Day 1: Explore

40 minutes

Next, I pass out the Adventures in Garbology to each pair of students. I have the students read through the handout, highlighting important information  and taking notes in the margins, either about ideas that they find particularly interesting or questions they have, as they read.

After reading, I ask students to write a short paragraph that describe the family, making inferences from what they read. They can comment on their eating habits, schedules, hobbies, or anything else they feel they have learned about the family from what was discovered in their trash.


10 minutes

Once students have read and written their paragraph, we take a few minutes to discuss their responses. I allow a few volunteers to read their paragraphs aloud, if they feel comfortable. For those who do not want to read their writing, I ask them to share 1-2 things they feel they have learned about the family in the article.

Next, I ask the students to consider  - and attempt to list - all of the items they throw out over a week's time. After providing time to brainstorm a list, I have them conduct a Think-Pair-Share to answer the following question:

  What might a Garbologist conclude about you from going through your trash?


30 minutes

Next, I explain to the students that we are about to embark on a very exciting unit about how what we buy, throw away, and do in our daily lives can have a positive or negative effect on the environment around us.

I explain that one of the things Americans do that is very harmful to the environment is the cycle of "consumption" and "disposal", writing these terms on the board as I introduce them. To explain these ideas, I show the video, The Story of Stuff. While watching, I ask the students to write down the following:

  • At least 5 ideas that they found interesting.
  • At least 5 things they find hard to believe.
  • At least 5 words they didn't understand.
  • At least 5 questions they have.


After watching the video, I project the Story of Stuff Fact Sheet, allowing students to see if any of their questions can be answered from the sheet.

Then, I have the students share their ideas and remaining questions with the people sitting at their table group. If an idea or question was common to more than two students in the group, I choose a a representative for the group to write it on chart paper. These can help to serve as driving questions or ideas as we progress throughout the unit. It also helps me to know which terms may need additional teaching in order to develop a deeper understanding.


5 minutes

The students are assessed for their understanding of this lesson by completing a Ticket out the Door. For this activity, students will select and respond in writing to TWO the following questions:

1. In the United States in 2006, 83% of people viewed a clothes dryer as a necessity, 50% viewed a cell phone as a necessity, and 33% believed that high-speed Internet was a necessity. Do you agree that these items are essential? Why or why not?

2. Why do you think Americans are willing to consume and dispose of materials so easily?

3. How do you think the cycle of consumption and disposal affects the environment? How else does it affect our culture?

4. What can YOU do to lessen the impact of consumption and disposal on the environment?