Public Lab Research note

Messages from the Mississippi Lesson 4: Plastic Reduction

by purl | February 26, 2021 18:02 26 Feb 18:02 | #25811 | #25811


Available as a Google Doc here.

Time: 90 minutes


  • Computers (with internet access) for each student/student group
  • Teacher computer to share charts/slides with class
  • Cornstarch (1 tbs per student)
  • Vinegar (1 tbs per student)
  • Glycerin (1 tbs per student)
  • Water (4 tbs per student)
  • Stove top/heat pad
  • pot
  • stirring tool (i.e. wooden spoon)

Further Reading

Objective: Students will be able to assess the potential effects of plastic reduction and bioplastics in their community and will model the potential impact on riverine environments. Students will do this through researching plastic reduction strategies, testing bioplastics and plastic alternatives and using student-generated data to assess the impact and viability of plastic reduction methods.

Preparation Prior to Lesson

Have space on a whiteboard or make a Google Doc for shared note-taking space.

Have an experimentation space and materials/tools ready for students to make bioplastic samples. Experiment requires: a cooking pot, mixing tool (metal or wooden spoon ideal), a burner or heat plate, cornstarch, vinegar, glycerin, water and aluminum foil.


Time: 30 minutes

(5 m) Discuss: What do we commonly use plastic for?

Ask students to answer the question above. List their answers on a whiteboard or a digital space that students can access and edit. Once listed, follow up with: What are some instances or uses that we could replace with alternative materials?

(10 m) Explore: What are bioplastics?

Have students watch "What is Bioplastic?" youtube video. Have they encountered bioplastics before that they know of? Show some examples of bioplastic commercial use. Recommended examples: Coca Cola's Plant Bottle, these Keurig cups, Ecovita cutlery.

(15 min) Bioplastics Overview

Create slide presentation (or use this one), that addresses the following:

  • bioplastics are made of biopolymers, which are natural substances that are composed of very large molecules (also known as macromolecules) made of simpler chemical units called monomers.
  • The most frequently used bioplastics, what they are made from, and what they are used for; i.e. gelatin, starch, cellulose, chitin, etc. Helpful resource here.
  • Have students discuss potential pros and cons of different types of bioplastics

Optional: Have students watch and discuss Can Bioplastics Ever Compete? | Our Plastic Predicament: Episode 8 from ThinkBioplastic


Time: 50 minutes

(30 m) Make Bioplastic

Have each student (this can also be done as a group or class project) organize their materials. Experiment requires: a cooking pot, mixing tool (metal or wooden spoon ideal), a burner or heat plate, cornstarch, vinegar, glycerin, water and aluminum foil.

Measure one tablespoon of cornstarch, vinegar and glycerin. Combine with four tablespoons of water in cooking pot and stir together. Mixture should be a milky color. Turn on burner to low or medium and stir mixture over heat. Continual stirring will keep mixture from lumping together. Mixture will begin to turn translucent. After approximately a minute, turn off heat and evenly spread mixture onto aluminum foil. Plastic should be left alone for several hours to a day in order to dry properly. Recipe was pulled from Biomass Plastic, link here.

(20 m) Plastic Reduction Discussion

Ask students to describe, in as much detail as they can, the life cycle of a water bottle. After a few minutes, show students this infographic of a plastic water bottle's journey. Ask students where they think waste is mostly leaking out in the environment during this production cycle. Do they think it's primarily during manufacturing (from corporations, companies), distribution (lost during transportation), use (from consumers) or disposal (during or through lack of waste management)? What are some ways in which the New Orleans community can monitor and practice plastic waste reduction in the Mississippi River?


Time: 10 minutes

Synthesize and Share

Have students write up a pseudo proposal outline for an initiative based on their brainstorming around plastic reduction practices in the Mississippi River and alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. This can be done in groups of 3-5. If you have time, have students give a 2-3 minute elevator pitch of their project idea.

After the lesson: Compile student reflections and turn into a research note!


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