Plastic Pollution

Students explore how plastic pollution is choking the world’s oceans, and explore a variety of solutions for reducing plastic waste and reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean.

Unit Summary

In this unit, students explore how plastic pollution is choking the world’s oceans. Students learn about the history of plastic, how plastic ends up in the ocean, how plastic in the ocean impacts the ecosystem, and why it’s so hard to remove plastic from the ocean once it’s there. In the second half of the unit, students explore a variety of solutions for reducing plastic waste and reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean. Students will learn about large policy-based changes that can be made and also explore smaller voluntary actions they can take that will make a difference. Finally, students end the unit doing a research project aimed at educating others about the dangers of plastic and its impact on the environment. 

In reading, this unit serves as the foundational informational unit of the year. Students will be challenged to explain the relationship between two or more scientific ideas, determine the meaning of domain-specific words, and understand the reasons and evidence the author uses to support a particular point. Since this is the first informational unit, routines and procedures for active annotation, discussion, and writing about reading should be introduced so that students are able to show understanding of the text and standards in multiple modes. 

Note: This unit extends student understanding of fifth-grade science standards. In fifth grade, students study ecosystems and are able to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. The introduction of plastic into the ecosystem disrupts the movement of matter, shifting the food webs and food chains. If students are not familiar with ecosystems, we recommend using parts of our archived unit Life Science: Ecosystems to build student background. Access our archives here.

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Unit Launch

Prepare to teach this unit with videos and short readings that cover:

  • Key standards
  • Essential questions
  • Text complexity
  • Monitoring student progress

Texts and Materials

Core Materials

Supporting Materials

See Text Selection Rationale

Unit Prep

Essential Questions


  • Why do we have a plastic pollution problem? 
  • How is plastic pollution hurting the world’s oceans? 
  • What steps can be taken to lessen the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean?

Writing Focus Areas


Sentence-Level Focus Areas

  • Write complete sentences 
  • Edit for complete sentences
  • Use coordinating conjunctions
  • Use who, what, where, when and why details to expand simple sentences. 

Strong sentences are the foundation for all writing, therefore this unit focuses on introducing and reviewing the components of sentences. Students focus on writing complete sentences, particularly sentences with coordinating conjunctions, in response to daily Target Task questions. Students also learn how to use who, what, where, when and why details to expand simple sentences. 

Paragraph-Level Focus Areas

  • Use single-paragraph outlines to brainstorm cohesive paragraphs 
  • Write strong topic sentences
  • Determine which supporting evidence is important
  • Elaborate on supporting details by including specific facts 
  • Write concluding sentences 

In this unit students review the components of a strong paragraph, including writing strong topic sentences, determining supporting details, and drafting concluding sentences. Students also work on including specific facts to elaborate on supporting details.

Opinion Writing Focus Areas

  • State an opinion 
  • Logically group reasons 
  • Support reasons with facts and details 

In this unit students write their first opinion piece. Students work on stating an opinion, logically grouping reasons, and supporting reasons with facts and details.

Speaking and Listening Focus Areas

  • Prepare for discussion. Students learn how to prepare for academic discussions. 
  • Elaborate to support ideas. Students provide evidence or examples to justify and defend their point clearly.
  • Use vocabulary. Students use vocabulary that is specific to the subject and task to clarify and share their thoughts. 

In this unit, students predominantly show understanding of the text through academic discourse. Through a range of one-on-one, group, and teacher-led tasks students grapple with the deeper meanings of all core texts. Since this is the first unit of the year, students will learn how to follow rules for discussions and how to come prepared. This will be reinforced through oral language protocols referenced in the unit. 

Students at this point will also be in the beginning stages of articulating ideas and participating in conversations. As noted in our Guide to Academic Discourse (below), when students first participate in discussions the focus should be on helping students clarify and share their own thoughts. Later students will be able to engage with the thinking of others, but to do so they need to be able to clearly articulate their own ideas.



Below are all of the unit vocabulary words. Prior to teaching the unit, we recommend teachers decide which words to prioritize. We also recommend that teachers decide which affixes to prioritize. See our teacher tool Prepping Unit Vocabulary (below) for more guidance on which words to pick as priority words.


affordable artificial astounding biodegradability biodegradation biodegrade convenience decomposer discarded disposable dramatic emanate finite fragment grotesque incentive intrigued mechanism microplastic moldable plastic relentless synthetic tragic


-able -less -tion bio- de- micro-


These assessments accompany this unit to help gauge student understanding of key unit content and skills. Additional progress monitoring suggestions are included throughout the unit.

Lesson Map


  • “Single-Use Plastics” — Figure 1.2-Figure 1.8


Explain what it means to have a plastic problem.


  • Trash Vortex pp. 4 – 10 — to the top


Explain how plastic ends up in a gyre and what happens to it once it is there.


  • Trash Vortex pp. 10 – 13



Explain why the author uses the words “grotesque,” “astounding,” and “dramatic” to describe what Moore and his team found. 


  • Trash Vortex pp. 14 – 20


Explain how Leo Baekeland invented plastic. 


  • Trash Vortex pp. 20 – 25 — start from the bottom paragraph


Analyze how plastic became such a large part of everyday life.


  • Trash Vortex pp. 26 – 31



Explain what evidence the author uses to emphasize how much plastic is in the ocean and its impact on the ecosystem. 


  • Trash Vortex pp. 32 – 40



Analyze how plastic has a negative impact on ocean ecosystems and humans. 


  • Trash Vortex pp. 40 – 43

  • “Single-Use Plastics” — Figure 1.2-Figure 1.8



Explain what the author means by the quote, “we need to think about the items we are using not just on beaches, but also inland and communities far upstream as well.” 

9Essential Task

3 days


  • Trash Vortex







Write two strong paragraphs describing why we have a plastic pollution problem and how plastic pollution impacts the ocean.


  • Trash Vortex pp. 44 – 48



Explain what strategies the author recommends to help reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean and the pros and cons of the strategies.


  • Trash Vortex pp. 48 – 55 — from the bottom of the page



Explain what strategies the author recommends to help reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean and the pros and cons of the strategies. 


  • “Ten "stealth microplastics"...” — 820L or 1020L


Explain what “stealth microplastics” are and what steps we can take to reduce plastic waste from microplastics. 


  • “Companies are...” — 960L



Describe how Shelby’s actions show that a single person can make a difference.




3 days

Opinion Writing














Write multiple paragraphs that describe a solution for reducing the school’s use of plastic. Create a presentation to convince others around the school to take part and minimize the school’s use of plastic.

Common Core Standards

Language Standards
  • L.5.1 — Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

  • L.5.2.e — Spell grade-appropriate words correctly, consulting references as needed.

  • L.5.4.c — Consult reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation and determine or clarify the precise meaning of key words and phrases.

Reading Standards for Informational Text
  • RI.5.3 — Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.

  • RI.5.8 — Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).

  • RI.5.9 — Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

Speaking and Listening Standards
  • SL.5.1 — Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 5 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

  • SL.5.4 — Report on a topic or text or present an opinion, sequencing ideas logically and using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.

  • SL.5.5 — Include multimedia components (e.g., graphics, sound) and visual displays in presentations when appropriate to enhance the development of main ideas or themes.

  • SL.5.6 — Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, using formal English when appropriate to task and situation.

Writing Standards
  • W.5.1 — Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information

  • W.5.1.a — Introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which ideas are logically grouped to support the writer's purpose.

  • W.5.1.b — Provide logically ordered reasons that are supported by facts and details.

  • W.5.2 — Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

  • W.5.2.a — Introduce a topic clearly, provide a general observation and focus, and group related information logically; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

  • W.5.2.b — Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic.

  • W.5.2.e — Provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented

  • W.5.7 — Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.

  • W.5.9 — Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Sprial Standards