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1 — How do we quantify and conceptualise trash?

How much of what we purchase becomes rubbish, garbage or trash? How does this trash impact on our lives? This learning sequence addresses the Cross-Curriculum Priority: Sustainability, and introduces the overarching inquiry question: How are our lifestyles shaping and changing the planet? The sequence contains a number of introductory English activities that will also draw on some of the General Capabilities, including Literacy, Numeracy, Information and Communication Technology, and Critical and Creative Thinking. The key aim will be to engage students in the unit of study, tune them in to the learning that will occur and access their prior knowledge.

Activity 1: ‘Tooning in’

Cartoon of people exiting a shopping centre with loaded trolleys, which they are then emptying straight into a garbage dump.

Above: Shopping, illustration by Jan Gillbank

Direct the students’ attention to the cartoon pictured left as well as to the political cartoon ‘Trash’ by artist Marcelo Rampazzo. Explain that many cartoons are satirical; that is, they present a critical but humorous perspective on a topic or issue. ACELA1543ACELT1630 

Ask the students to respond to the cartoons. They can complete a See Think Wonder routine or write a short reflection that draws on visual elements, such as use of caricature, symbols and use of colour for mood. Ask the students to create their own captions to go with the cartoons: captions that highlight what they believe to be the key messages presented by the artists. Connect the captions and student thinking back to the big inquiry topic.

Activity 2: Defining terms

The words trash, waste, rubbish and garbage, for example, may be used synonymously. But each word has its own origins and connotations. Students can use an online dictionary, such as the Online Etymology Dictionary, to research different word origins and meanings and to begin to create a Glossary of terms that will be encountered in this unit. The glossary can be built upon throughout the unit and discussions about word origins and use can also be continuous. ACELA1547ACELY1729

Activity 3: Quantifying waste and mass consumption

The following table has links to photographic artworks by Chris Jordan. The artworks are visual representations that help the viewer to quantify mass consumption and waste. They are interactive and can be zoomed in on. 

Venus, 2011 
This image is created from 240,000 plastic bags, equal to the estimated number of plastic bags used around the world every ten seconds.

Gyre, 2009 
This image is created from 2.4 million pieces of plastic, equal to the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution entering the world’s oceans every hour. All of the plastic in this image was collected from the Pacific Ocean.

Dog and Cat Collars, 2009 
This image is created from 10,000 dog and cat collars, equal to the average number of unwanted dogs and cats euthanased in the USA every day.

Three Second Meditation, 2011 
This image is created from 9960 mail-order catalogues, equal to the average number of pieces of junk mail that are printed, shipped, delivered and disposed of in the USA every three seconds.

As for the political cartoon analysis earlier, draw the students’ attention to the way that visual and multimedia texts allude to or draw on other texts or images to enhance and layer meaning. Encourage them to explore and explain the effect and impact of the combination of modes and media. In this case, the artist has replicated some famous existing artworks. ACELA1548ACELY1735

Discussion questions:

Note: A series of Chris Jordan’s photographic artworks can also be found in his book Running the Numbers: An American self-portrait (see Resources).

While viewing the artworks, the students can be encouraged to complete a 3-2-1 chart to capture their initial thoughts. After viewing the thought-provoking artworks, ask them what the opening quote – What can’t be visualised can’t be named – from Running the Numbers means. This message also resonates strongly in Ted Kooser and Barry Root’s picture book Bag in the Wind. The authors track the journey (through story) of one plastic bag as it is recycled and reused. At the end of the book statistics are presented, such as: Americans use 100 billion plastic shopping bags per year, which equates to between 350 and 500 bags per year for the average American. The authors use the power of storytelling in the visual medium of a picture book to convey their message. Time permitting, and with access to the picture book, share the story with the students.

Further research

The students can be encouraged to research some Australian statistics to compare with global and USA statistics. Student research data can be collated and kept for use later in this unit.

An ongoing inquiry question for students can be around how a statistic or issue can be presented to maximise impact to a reader or audience and to ultimately aim to be more persuasive (for example, the use of quantification to persuade as a rhetorical device). This language inquiry will assist with one of the culminating projects for this unit – the creation of a feature article.  

An example of this can be highlighted by examining visual images that are created through language that is accompanied by numbers. Obviously, it would be impossible to tie plastic bags around the world and it would be very unlikely for us to fill houses with rubbish from floor to ceiling, but the use of such language helps us to draw on the enormity of the situation. According to the Living Smart website:

Australians use enough plastic bags per year that if these were tied together they would stretch around the world 24 times [based on the figure of 18 billion tonnes of waste produced per year.]

Each Australian family contributes enough rubbish each year to fill a three-bedroom house from floor to ceiling [based on the figure of 7 billion tonnes of household waste produced per year.]

Track my thinking

After the completion of the introductory activities in this sequence, direct students to complete a Track my thinking worksheet. This will be updated throughout the unit as a way for students to record the different ways that humans are shaping and changing the planet in relation to the overarching inquiry into living with trash.