container ship at port

Waste, the Environment, and a Circular Economy

Download Current Context issue: Waste, the Environment, and a Circular Economy

With container ships full of goods piled up at the ports of Los Angles and Long Beach, this is a good moment to examine the advantages and drawbacks of our current economy and consider what changes could make it work better for more people over time, and for the Earth itself.

People and businesses in the United States and around the world have committed in recent decades to promoting something known as a “circular economy.” The goal of such an economy is to greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the waste that results from the production of industrial and consumer goods. This is achieved through designing products without waste, and reusing these goods or their parts over and over again.

Teaching ideas:

  • Page 6 of this resource includes a map and graph classroom activity that asks students to examine average waste per person per country, and total waste by region. This data includes predictions for future waste amounts, and encourages students to think critically about population trends, wealthy and developing nations, and consumption patterns.
  • Page 7 includes an activity based on a video about the global journey of a t-shirt. Students consider labor conditions and environmental impact, and brainstorm what a circular economy would mean for the production of clothing.

In addition, you may want to consider connecting to HSS Framework guiding questions:

  • 10th: How has globalization affected people, nations, and capital?

     Critics of globalization cite environmental concerns, the impact on child labor, women’s   rights, and other issues. Consider how these issues are interconnected.

  • 11th: In what ways have issues such as the environment remained unchanged over time? In what ways have they changed?

     Consider concerns dating back to the first Earth Day in 1970, including trash and its toxicity (pollution). Or even Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to “beautify America” with an anti-litter focus. How is today’s problem of waste echoing these same concerns, and how have these problems evolved?

  • 12th Economics: How and why do workers organize?

     Consider the environmental hazards that compel some workers to strike or demand change, such as farm workers' campaigns against harmful pesticides.

Please reach out to with any suggestions, questions, or ideas for teaching this topic.

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