Redesigning Plastics
 is a new lesson plan written by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Schools and Colleges team as part of the World’s Largest Lesson 2017 [*].

The two part lesson is aimed at students aged 12+.  It introduces key facts about plastics, what could be done to make them fit in a circular economy, and encourages students to take on a creative design challenge of their own.  As part of Global Goal 12 – Responsible Consumption & Production, the lesson can be linked to the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize to provide students with an insight into what is currently being done to improve the global plastics economy.

This is the introduction:

Plastics have become an integral part of modern life, providing many benefits for consumers and producers.  But what happens to our waste plastic?  Where does it all end up?  Is recycling plastics really that effective?  In this lesson, students will explore how we use plastics in everyday packaging and how these might be redesigned in such a way as to not become a ‘waste’ problem.  Moving beyond methods to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ at end of life, students will explore ways of designing waste out of the system from the outset.

The teachers’ notes begin with this:


These days plastics are everywhere. They are an integral part of the modern economy and add in various ways to our quality of life.  Electronic devices, cars, chairs, food, hygienic products, containers, construction materials and packaging – they all contain plastics. Their use has increased twenty-fold in the past half-century and is expected to double again in the next 20 years. Today, nearly everyone, everywhere, every day comes into contact with plastics — especially plastic packaging. While delivering many bene ts, the current plastics economy has drawbacks that are becoming more and more obvious.

  • Many plastics are only used for a short time or a short first-use cycle.
  • 95% of plastic packaging material value, or US$80–120 billion annually, is lost from the economy.
  • Approximately 32% of plastic packaging leaks into the environment.
  • Only 14% is recycled, and only 2% is recycled back into plastics packaging production.

Do you need a better picture to illustrate these numbers?  If we carry on as we are, research suggests that by 2050 there will be more plastic than sh in the sea.  Plastics in the environment can lead to reduced productivity of vital natural systems such as oceans. Plastics can clog urban infrastructure, thus creating huge economic costs (i.e. negative externalities) for everyone.

Is anyone doing anything about this? Yes. Governments, cities and communities have activated various investments, schemes and collaborations.

  • People doing large scale clean-ups
  • Re-use bottle banks and return schemes
  • Collection and recycling schemes
  • Renewable resources, design for degradability
  • Intelligent sorting machines

However, many questions remain unresolved.

  • Can we collect all the plastics?
  • What about all the plastic in the oceans?
  • What happens if we mix di erent plastics?
  • Do we get the same properties from recycled plastics?
  • What effects can the chemicals in plastics have on the body?
  • Why are there no global regulations in place to govern plastics production world-wide?
  • Can we create an effective plastics system, with more value captured, and better environmental outcomes?

A much more concerted, global, systemic and collaborative approach is required with fundamental redesign, new reuse models, and radically improved recycling. …

The resource comes with additional teacher information, a print design sheet, and a powerpoint presentation.  You can explore the lesson here.


The World’s Largest Lesson aims to bring the goals to children and young people, and unite them in action.  It is curated by Project Everyone in support of the United Nation’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

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