THEME: The composition of our trash differs from that of our ancestors.

GOAL: Students will gain an understanding of how our use of natural resources and generation of waste have changed over time.

METHOD: Poster or essay with discussion

SUBJECTS: Art, science, social studies

SKILLS: Critical thinking, inferring, researching

MATERIALS: Construction paper; pictures

TIME: 1 hour


Looking back into the lives of previous generations reveals many interesting facts about how their lives were different from those we live today. Not only did people make do without the many technological advances we now take for granted, but they generated less waste by reusing and recycling many items (even if they didn't call it by those names). Comparing our lifestyles and habits to those of past generations reveals much about how modern society lives and suggests ways we could reduce our use of natural resources and the amount of waste we generate.

Getting Started

Have the students list some modern conveniences we have today (e.g., frozen foods, disposable diapers, etc.) and what their ancestors might have used instead.


  1. Divide the class into small groups and assign each a different time period in American history (e.g., Pre-European or Arrival of the Pilgrims, Colonial Settlement, The California Gold Rush, World War II). Have each group research its time period and make a poster illustrating the kinds of trash items they would have generated then. Each group should explain its poster to the class. What kinds of things can you tell about a culture by examining its waste? What do the differences in trash indicate about the lifestyles of the people living then?
  2. Make a time line and mount the posters at the appropriate period. Have students write an essay on how and why the materials Americans throw away have changed over time.
  3. Ask the class what people did before the convenience products we use today (e.g., disposable diapers, scotch tape, microwave ovens, plastic wrap, plastic soda bottles) were available. Give each student a card with the name of an object we use today and have them come up with an alternative product used in a different time period but which does the same thing. How would the waste generated by the alternative differ from that generated by the product used today?


  1. Have the students interview their parents, grandparents, or other adults to find out how the products they used as children, and the type and amount of trash they generated, are different from today.
  2. World War II was a period of full-fledged recycling in the United States. Have the students research what types of things were recycled and write an essay on how this affected the amount and type of waste being generated. Why have things changed?
  3. Tell the students they are archaeologists from the Year 3000 and have discovered an old landfill from the Year 1990. What sorts of items would they find? What conclusions could they draw about our society from looking at its trash?
  4. Have the students (individually or in groups) select a foreign country and research the amount and types of trash it generates. Have students report back to the class and discuss how American society and habits differ from those in other countries. What can different countries learn from one another?

Source: Adapted from AVR, Teacher's Resource Guide