Plastic can be really useful. It can be easily moulded or shaped, but there’s a lot more to modern plastics than just that. Plastic is everywhere in our lives. Sometimes it is in something we use over and over for years: in the car, the fridge, a bicycle helmet. Sometimes we use it only once, like a nappy, a bin liner, or food packaging.
Different plastics can have many different physical properties. They can be hard, soft, coloured, see-through, microwavable, waterproof, absorbent or flexible. Yet, all plastics have a few common properties. Plastics are all light, durable, and cheap to produce – often as a by-product from fossil fuels.
You’ve probably noticed a number inside a triangle on many plastic products – this is the plastic identification code (PIC). This tell you what type of plastic it is and the way it is recycled.
It can be harder to recycle items that have a mix of different materials – like a disposable coffee cup, which has a thin layer of plastic that stops coffee soaking the cardboard. You may not be able to put these things in a regular recycling bin, but there are many different recycling initiatives happening around the country. Can you research what’s happening near you to keep plastic out of landfill?
In this activity, learn more about the plastic in our lives.
Activity 1: Let’s investigate
What you’ll need
about one hour
a way to record your findings (notebook, laptop, iPad)
your science senses!
What you’ll do
Pick a room in your house to explore and identify all the ways plastic is used in the space. Look around and ask:
Where are all the plastics in the room?
What type of plastic is it?
What is it used for?
How long has it been there?
What happens when you bend/twist/stretch/squash it?
How many times can you use it?
Record your observations in a table.
Once the table is filled out, tally the results. How many types of plastic did you find? How many single-use plastics?
Does anything surprise you?
You can choose any of the following activities to explore more about plastics!
Want to take this activity further?
Did you know? One of the first man-made plastics was invented in 1868 by John Wesley Hyatt as a substitute for ivory, which was used to make billiard balls.
But not all plastics are man-made. Animal horns are a natural plastic. You can also make another type of plastic by mixing vinegar and milk and hardening it with formaldehyde.
There are also man-made plastics that don’t originate from fossil fuels, called bio-plastics.
No matter where it come from though, the fact that plastic is so durable is also what makes it such a big environmental problem.
Plastic can break into smaller and smaller pieces but it takes a very long time to break down chemically. Some plastics degrade and just break up into very small pieces while others biodegrade through the help of organisms.
Often, before it breaks down, many animals either get tangled up in plastic or mistake it for food and eat it, which can be very dangerous.
Once inside the stomach, plastic can release toxins and poison the animal. So, it’s very important to handle plastic properly.
Pick a piece of plastic that is leaving your house (an item of food packaging is a good choice). Head on a research mission to find out its PIC number and plot its plastic life cycle.
Things to find out
What type of plastic is it?
How many times has it been used?
Can it be recycled? How/why not?
Using pictures and arrows, turn this into a visual life cycle map to show the journey the plastic item will take over its life.
How does the life cycle change if you dispose of it differently? Map out the pathways that would happen if you:
throw it outside
throw it in the waste bin
What would we do if we didn’t have plastic? What alternatives would there be for the items on your list? What would that world look like!
In this challenge, invent a new product to replace one of the plastic items in your house. You could draw it or make a model using LEGO, cardboard or even cleaned, recycled plastic to turn your idea into a prototype.
You can ask:
what alternative material is the new invention made of?
what does its lifecycle look like?
Scientists have found some mutated bacteria that can break down plastic. This has great potential to help solve some of the environmental issues caused by plastic.
What if this bacteria spreads, eating away all the plastic in our lives?
You can ask:
what would change?
what plastic would you most want to replace?
Draw a picture or write a story, a play or a song about living in that world. Include what your home would look like. What would the environment look like?
To help the natural environment, we can all use less plastic. We can also be aware of how to correctly dispose of different types of plastic.
Stop plastics from being thrown away into landfill by creating a campaign, like ‘Waste-free Wednesday’ or ‘Straw No More’. Create a catchy campaign poster and share with your family or even your class at school. Bonus points if you can make it out of recycled items!
You can ask:
how do you think we could reuse our plastics?
how else could we stop it from damaging the natural environment?
Share your project with friends or family – you could show them your work, read them your story or play your song. Maybe you could even make a video for them to watch.
Things to try
Create a stop motion animation of your product’s life cycle.
Explain the design process for a new product.
Use your research to build a recycling campaign – make sure you have a catchy slogan!
We’d love to see what you create! Share your project by tagging #ScitechAtHome on social media.
Try another at home challenge from our postcard series: