Activity 3B

The Stuff We Use, Then and Now

Students contrast today's resource consumption with that of Native Americans and settlers.


  • Students will be able to describe the difference between renewable and nonrenewable resources.
  • Students will be able to identify the raw materials used to make most of the products they use.


1 to 2 hours


Americans produce 154 million tons of garbage every year, or 3.4 pounds per person per day-which is a heck of a lot more than we did in the 1840s. Of course, then there were only 13 million Americans and today there are 250 million. Even so, our resource consumption and subsequent garbage production has grown much faster than our population. Landfills across the country are filling up and closing down with the waste we create, forcing us to reassess our garbage generating and disposal practices.

How Long Litter Lasts
Material Years
Cigarette butts 1-15
Wool socks 1-15
Orange peels up to 2
Banana peels up to 2
Nylon fabric 30-40
Leather up to 50
Tin can 50
Plastic 6-pack holder 100
Glass bottle 1,000
Aluminum can 500
Plastic bottles indefinitely
Common Styrofoam indefinitely
Plastic film container 20-30
Plastic bags 10-20

American settlers and the Native Americans they displaced didn't worry about waste disposal because the country was big, human numbers were small, and their garbage was largely decomposable and non-toxic. All that has changed. We have much more per person to get rid of today, and much of that (plastics nylon, rubber, vinyl, polyester, and other petroleum products) requires hundreds of years to decompose. Household waste such as paint and batteries contain toxic materials which can pollute ground water. Sea turtles and sea birds die from eating plastic and polystyrene floating on the ocean. Incinerated garbage can release toxic chemicals into the air. Despite the environmental costs of today's waste problems, we are in some ways as cavalier now about garbage disposal as we were 150 years ago.

By comparing today's consumption and waste practices with those of 150 years ago, we can better appreciate the consumption and waste issues we now face.


copies of the following handouts

Work Sheet 3B-1,2, 3

Work Sheet 3B-4


Students will list things they would take on a trip and categorize those things in various ways. They will make three lists, one for Shoshone Indians, one for Oregon Trail settlers, and one for a modern camping trip. Then they will answer questions about their lists on a provided worksheet.

See what the students know about renewable and nonrenewable resources. Renewable resources are made from living things which can replace themselves. Nonrenewable resources originate with non-living things and once used, cannot be replaced by nature in any time relevant to a human life.

See what your kids know about the raw materials used to make things. For example, hold up a running shoe. Do they know that the shoe is probably made out of oil (plastic, nylon, most rubber, and polyester)? Do they know what will happen to it once it's discarded (reside in a landfill for hundreds or thousands of years)?

To help your students understand consumption and waste issues, generate a list of things in your class with the students and have them categorize them as follows. Here are a few common examples:

Item Made from: Raw material Reusable Recyclable Likely to be recycled Decomposable
Renewable resources Nonrenewable resource
wooden desk X
wood Y Y N Y
plastic chair
X oil Y Y N N
magazine X
wood Y Y N Y
X glass, oil, metal Y Y N N
paper X
wood N Y ? Y
cotton pants X
cotton Y Y N Y
pile jacket
X oil Y Y N N
PB sandwich X
wheat, peanuts N N N Y
nylon jacket
X oil Y Y N N
sandwich bag
X oil N Y N N
plastic milk jug
X oil Y Y ? N


Reusable = can it be used over and over again?
Recyclable = can it be made into something else once it's served its original purpose?
Likely to be recycled= will it probably be recycled?
Decomposable = will it decompose in less that 10 years in ideal conditions?

When your kids get the hang of it, have them complete the following "What to Take With You..." handouts (3B-1,2,3) one or two for each of the three categories. You may want them to plan their trips in small groups. You may have to require that they do some research on what settlers and Native Americans used so their lists will be more complete. The following are some ideas you could share with them if they get stuck.

Shoshone Indians:

Pony Otter skin water bag
Arrow shafts Sinew from animal gut
Buck skin pouch Dried meat and berries
Camas bulbs Obsidian
Bow Flint knife
Dog Spear
Buffalo robe Tobacco
Moccasins Tinder (for fire making)
Fire-making bow and spindle Antler tine
Baskets Digging sticks
Dyes, paints

Oregon Trail settlers (courtesy John Campbell, 1863):

Oxen Kettle Whetstone
Wagon Gold pans Flour
Tent Picks Bacon
Candles Shovels Coffee
Soap Axes Tea
Matches Bread pans Yeast
Water keg Wagon bucket Salt
Coffee mill Hand saw Pepper
Plates Drawing knife Beans
Cups Chisels Vinegar
Silverware Augers Lard
Frying pans Gimlets Sugar
Butcher knives Gold scales Dried apples
Skillet Files Dried peaches
Water buckets Hatchet Rice
Tin pails Hammer
Rope Nails

Give the students the "What to Take With You..." handouts (3B-1,2,3) and the following instructions:

You're going to plan trips in three different times in history by making a list of all the stuff you would bring.

  1. List all the things you would take with you on an extended trip if you were a Shoshone Indian living here 200 years ago.
  2. Write down all the stuff you'd take with you if you were on the Oregon Trail 150 years ago.
  3. List all the things you would need for a great family camping trip today.
Be thorough and specific. After you've listed everything you'll need, go down the list and categorize your items as renewable, recyclable, decomposable, etc.

When they have completed the lists, give them the "Stuff We Use, Then and Now" work sheet (3B-4) to respond to. Remember, all one needs for survival is food, water, air, shelter, and clothes (in cold places).

Activity 3A - 3C - 3D | Table of Contents | Chapter 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

Last updated: January 17, 2018

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