Closeup image of plastic pollution in woody debris of a beach wrackline.


Photo credit: Algalita

Investigate beach sand for plastic contamination levels and observe human impacts on coastal ecosystem health.


Grades 5 and up

Time Needed 30 to 60 minutes, or 2 hour fieldtrip

Toolkit Details

What is in the Synthetic Sand Sample Kit?
– 4 sand samples collected from Long Beach, CA
– 4 magnifying glasses
– Sample info cards

Materials you’ll need to procure
– 1 paper plate per group of 2 to 4 students

Editable Handouts
Synthetic Sand – Microplastic Sorting Sheet – PDF
Synthetic Sand – Identification Clue Sheet PDF
Synthetic Sand – Data Sheet Google Sheet

Alternative Fieldtrip Option

Instead of using our Sample Kit, you can collect your own samples or do a class field trip for your students to collect their own samples. You’ll need these items per group: 4 yard rope, shovel, bucket, kitchen strainer, magnifying glass (optional), paper bag, and paper plate. A Synthetic Sand Fieldtrip takes about 2 hours of activity time.

We’ve outlined how to collect your own sample in the following video, and have also created this printable guide Synthetic Sand – Educator Guide PDF.

Purpose and Context

Plastic pollution is now a well-known environmental issue, but usually efforts focus on litter clean ups and leave it at that. Looking closer, scientists have been researching microplastics, small pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size are found throughout our environment. Their small sizes mean they can be ingested by smaller organisms lower on the food chain and that they are much harder to remove from the environment.

Microplastics commonly accumulate in coastal habitats like beaches, bays, and estuaries. These are important areas for many species for raising their young. These areas are often also popular recreation areas for people.




Prepare the materials for each group: a sand sample, a paper plate, a magnifier (optional), plus a copy each of the Sorting Sheet, Clue Sheet, and Data Sheet.

In class

  1. Students transfer the sand sample onto the paper plate to analyze it. Using the Identification Clues Sheet to help differentiate between synthetic and natural materials, they pick out the plastic and other human made materials from the sample, and place them directly on the sorting sheet. The sorting sheet grid has a grid size of 5 mm. Pieces that are smaller than 1 square on the grid are microplastics. Note: Also observe the natural pieces in the sand sample. Magnifying glasses are a fun, helpful tool for sorting.
  2. Once they have found all the plastic and human-made debris, and sorted each item into the correct category on the sorting sheet, they tally the number of microplastic and macroplastic (bigger than 5 mm) items in each category based on the item’s size compared to the 5 mm grid.
  3. Students then use the Data Sheet to record and visualize their results with a graph.
  4. We’ve provided a series of questions on the Data Sheet to help students analyze and interpret their data.

Tips and Suggestions

  • Some things things in the sand sample can be really challenging to identify – especially small pieces that are naturally colored. Is it plastic, or not? Use the clue sheet to help you make your best educated guess! Try using the magnifying glass to help you see better. Sometimes, scientists need to use expensive machines or chemical tests to determine whether something is plastic or not.
  • If you are collecting your own samples be safe around waterways, and use gloves to remove any hazardous items like glass, sharps, sanitary items, or rusty metals. Check your sand samples to remove any hazardous items before bringing them into class. If you are conducting a fieldtrip, remember to conduct a safety talk for your students before starting.
  • For safety and to reduce waste, ask students to wash their hands after handling the samples.

Associated Standards


5-PS1-3 Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties.

MS-PS 1-3 Gather and make sense of info to describe that synthetic materials come from natural resources and impact society.

MS-ESS 3-3  Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.


Related Resources

Close up of an albatross, sea bird, sitting on the ocean surface.

Lesson: Sources and Sinks

How does plastic get into and impact ecosystems?

Grades 4 and up
30 to 60 minutes

Assorted plastic debris objects arranged by color.

Lesson: The Problem with Plastics

Brainstorm and discuss the benefits and consequences of plastic.

Grades 4 and up
30 minutes

A classroom desk.

Lesson: Synthetic or Natural?

Contemplate the difference between synthetic and natural materials that make up common items in the classroom.

Grades 5 and up
30 to 60 minutes

A fracking well pad with containers and equipment sits among trees.A fracking well pad with containers and equipment sits among trees.

Lesson: How and where are plastics made?

Find out how plastics are produced in the US and find out how it impacts communities using geography tools like our GIS interactive map.

Co-created with FracTracker Alliance

Grades 7 and up
30 to 60 minutes

Explore more

Plastic Pollution Basics

A quick crash course on plastic pollution and what we can do about it!

Learn more

Trash Cam Live: Alamitos Bay

Look down in the the waters of Alamitos Bay in Southern California. Watch wildlife and help us monitor plastic pollution.

Learn more

Help us improve our free resources.

By making our resources freely available, we've given up some of our ability to track how our resources are being used. Please help us measure our impact, which we'll use to inform our generous donors, by signing up for our newsletter and completing our end-of-the-school-year survey.

We'll also keep you up to date with new free events, lessons, toolkits, videos, plus community blogs and funding opportunities. 

Thank you!

Success! Thank you for joining our Wayfinder Society community.