Students look for evidence to determine whether marine debris objects originated from land or sea, and how ocean currents affect debris distribution.

MARINE DEBRIS Sources and Transport: Materials for Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: Campus Debris Survey
from Winged Ambassadors, Lesson 5

Can we find evidence of trash in our school yard? This activity will serve as a catalyst for students to derive connections between their actions and the impact on the environment.  Students will observe marine debris from around the world, collect their own trash data around school, and use technology to further research.  Once the data can be compared, students will communicate their findings in a group setting.  Students will improve their inquiry, organizational, and higher order thinking skills by data and technology resources.

What were the most common types of trash found in your study site? Could any of these materials end up as marine debris? Why or why not?  Why is it useful to identify potential sources of marine debris?


  • Don’t Be Trashy lesson plan from 2015 MBARI Earth Workshop incorporates technology into a debris survey using Litterati

Lesson 2: Ocean's Deadliest Catch

How does trash become marine debris? Students collect debris on their school campus and compare the quantify of plastic with a similar sample at the mouth of the river where it empties into the ocean.  In addition, they use drifters to demonstrate how trash found in inland waterways can move through the watershed and end up as marine debris.

Ask students to engineer their own drifter made from biodegradable materials and use it to determine how long it takes trash to the ocean. How does a drifter model the movement of marine debris through the watershed? Based on the rate of speed you calculated for your drifter, how long would it take your drifter (or a piece of trash) to reach the ocean?


Lesson 3: Where Did the Rubber Bath Toys Go?
from Alaska Seas and Watersheds, Alaska Sea Grant

How do currents distribute marine debris from one place to another? Students read a true story about bath toys that fell off a container ship and washed up on beaches around the world. Using a world map, they locate and record the dates and places where the toys were eventually found. They then write a hypothesis about how the toys made their way to the various locations identified.

Students can further explore ocean circulation and use a world map to determine how debris travels across the ocean.

Lesson 4: Marine Debris Around the World 
from Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences (SMILE) at Oregon State University

What causes the movement of ocean surface currents? Students use a model to test how air movement affects water movement, and devise a hypothesis about how the direction of air currents affect the movement of ocean surface currents and floating objects.

How does the model demonstrate surface circulation around the globe? What factors other than wind affect current speed and direction?

Lesson 5: Where Did You Come From and How Did You Get Here?
from 2015 MBARI EARTH

How do we use models to predict the distribution of tsunami-generated debris? Students construct models of ocean surface currents and winds to explain the dispersal of Japanese Tsunami Marine Debris (JTMD).  Then they compare their model to those generated by researchers.

How do currents and wind affect the movement of debris generated by the 2011 tsunami in Japan?  Do different materials disperse at different rates or in different directions, and if so, why?  Compare the predictions of your model with those of other researchers and, if possible, with reports of debris landings on shore. What types of tsunami debris would you expect to find on the Pacific coast of North America?


More about this focus area

There are many different sources of marine debris. From intentional littering on land and in waterways, to improperly covered trash bins, items often travel by wind and currents long distances before settling on beaches or on the ocean floor. Marine debris can come from anywhere in a watershed, and be carried by rivers, streams, and other waterways into the ocean. Marine debris can aso be generated in the ocean through lost cargo and fishing gear, and even dispersed by natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis.

  • Where does marine debris come from?
  • How does marine debris get into the ocean?
  • How does marine debris move around the ocean?
  • There are many sources of marine debris, but most comes from land
  • Debris travels from waterways and through watersheds into the ocean
  • Ocean currents and wind move marine debris throughout the ocean

ESS3.C - Human Impacts on Earth Systems - Sustainability of human societies and the biodiversity that supports them requires responsible management of natural resources, including the development of technologies