Grade 6-8

Dumptown, USA: Making a Ton of Difference

Updated: October 26 2021,
Author: Patricia Bonner

The amount of trash produced in the United States is mounting with each passing year. Communities are finding it increasingly difficult and costly to handle trash disposal. Recycling is considered a key solution to the garbage problem. In this lesson, students explore the extent to which various types of solid waste contribute to the problem. They then assume the role of city managers who must choose recycling programs that will fit within a community’s financial constraints. Students use marginal analysis to determine the most cost-effective solutions.


piechartHold up the waste basket in your classroom or show students Visual 1. Ask your students what they call the “stuff” that goes in the basket or can. Write their answers on the board or on the visual. Explain to the students that whatever they call the stuff in the can — trash, garbage, refuse, solid waste, etc. — that stuff is going to be the focus of the lesson.

Explain that economists call the stuff in the can a negative externality. An externality is a side effect that results when production or consumption affects persons other than those directly involved in the production or consumption process. When the side effect is detrimental to other people — aka “third parties” — the externality is negative. Ask the students:

  • When you throw something into a trash can at school, who might be affected in a negative way? [Potential responses include the school (it has to pay for a janitor to empty the trash cans and for someone to pick up the trash), and citizens (they have to pay taxes to support the operation of the school). A student familiar with the concept of opportunity costs might point out that the money used for disposing of trash reduces the amount of money available to pay for their education. Not all costs are financial — other students may not appreciate the odor associated with trash.]
  • What negative externalities might be associated with trash you put in a trash can at home? [A family member has to spend time and effort carrying the garbage out to the garbage can and then to the curb. The household has to pay for the removal of trash via private or public garbage pickup. The time, effort, and money spent getting rid of the trash are all examples of opportunity costs. Trash that isn’t taken out promptly may also smell and attract pests.]
  • Not all trash is put into a trash can. What happens when someone litters? [A common response is that the environment is spoiled — it isn’t pleasant for others to have to look at the litter. The community may have to hire someone to pick up the litter. Citizens have to pay taxes to cover the cost of this clean-up.]

Introduce the activities that follow. These activities will help the students to identify the “stuff” that is contributing to our nation’s solid waste problem. They students then will explore recycling options that communities may use for reducing solid waste. They will be asked to take on the job of city manager for a community named “Dumptown.” Dumptown wants to become “Recycle City.” Like most governments, Dumptown can’t adopt all the programs it might like to have. An analysis of and Marginal Benefit will help Downtown officials to make the most of the city’s limited funding for recycling programs.

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the primary sources of solid waste in the United States.
  • Use Marginal Analysis to determine which recycling programs are most cost-effective for a community.

Resource List


Divide the class into teams of 2-4 students to work at computer stations.

Activity: What’s in Our Trash?

As an introduction to the solid waste thrown away in the United States, the students play an interactive game in which they must rank various wastes. Correct responses are as follows:

Paper 40.4% 71.6 tons
Yard Trimmings 17.6% 31.6 tons
Metals 8.8% 16.3 tons
Plastics 8.0% 14.4 tons
Food Scraps 7.4% 13.2 tons
Glass 7.0% 12.6 tons
Other 11.6% 10.8 tons


After the game, ask the students are then asked to think about what they have just discovered.

View Interactive Activity


  1. What is the largest source of trash in our nation? [Paper is the largest source of trash in our nation.]
  2. Did this surprise you? [Have the students explain their answers, because most people think it is something else.]
  3. What was the second largest source of trash? [Yard trimmings was the second largest source of trash.]
  4. What kind of things do you think might be included in the “other” category? [Rubber, leather, textiles, wood, and miscellaneous other wastes that aren’t composed of animal or plant matter.]

Activity: DumpTown Recycles

The students are told that the residents of a hypothetical city named Dumptown are concerned about the cost of getting rid of garbage and its negative impact on the environment. The town has decided it wants to recycle more of its solid waste.

City Council members have visited other communities and identified ten different ways in which they can increase recycling in Dumptown. Taking on the role of city manager, your students must choose Dumptown’s new recycling programs.

trashLike most communities, Dumptown’s financial resources are limited. The city won’t be able to implement all of the ideas that are on the City Council’s recycling wish list. To make a selection, the students must consider the and marginal benefit of each program. The marginal benefit is the increase in the tons of trash recycled as each new program is introduced, while the marginal cost is the dollar cost of introducing a new program. You may want to give the students the definition of marginal cost and marginal benefit. Marginal benefit is the additional gain from consuming or producing one more unit of a good or service; it can be measured in dollars or satisfaction. is the increase in a producer’s total cost when it increases its output by one unit.

Since the programs have different marginal costs and benefits, explain to the students that they must establish a standardized means to compare the programs. The worksheet uses the average cost for reducing waste by one ton. This is calculated by dividing the cost of each program by the tons of solid waste that will be eliminated. The goal for students is to select the programs that reduce solid waste tonnage for the fewest dollars.

Students are directed to use this worksheet to help them do their job. The worksheet provides directions and helps students use cost-benefit analysis. Here are the answers for the worksheet.

Before they start to answer the questions on the worksheet, the students are also instructed to read these , which will provide more information useful in playing the Dumptown Game.

When they are ready to play, they go to this web page

As the students play the game, they may discover that some benefits and costs vary depending on which other programs have already been selected. The “Pay as You Throw” option is dependent on what other programs are chosen. For this reason and because there is no cost associated with the option, students are encouraged to select this option last.

A similar variance was found when upgrading the Home Recycling Pickup. If this option is selected early, the reduction in weight can be as much as 19 ton. If this same option is selected later in the game, the reduction can be as little as 7 tons. Interrupt the students when they are close to completing the data on their charts. Have them compare the marginal costs and benefits so they will have ranges where variance occurs. Discuss:

  • Why do you think some of the marginal benefits and costs vary? [Some programs have overlapping goals. For example, the availability of home pickup will negatively impact a drop-off center. Few people will drive to a center if they can have their recycled items picked up at home.]
  • Did you find any other cases in which occasions when one option, which impacts another? [Students will probably point out the Pay As You Go option has no impact unless some of the other options are selected.]


When the students have completed the worksheet, reinforce the idea that effective decision-making, whether by a government, an individual, or a business, requires comparing the additional costs of alternatives with the additional benefits. Most choices involve doing a little more or a little less of something. Few choices are ‘all or nothing’ decisions. Discuss:

  • In Dumptown, two programs actually save the city money. What are they? [Grass Cycling and Home Composting]
  • How do they save money? [They reduce the amount of garbage that the city must handle.]
  • What impact did these two programs have on your ability to choose other recycling programs for the city? [The money saved can be used to pay for other programs.]
  • What other programs were most cost-effective—in other words, which programs provided the most benefit for the least cost? [Business recycling was the most cost-effective at $40 per ton followed by business composting (at $333 per ton).]
  • Why would businesses be willing to compost and do other types of recycling? [Businesses usually pay a commercial hauler to pick up their trash. Recycling may reduce the amount a business has to pay for commercial pickup and may even help make money if the business can use or sell the waste.]

Explain that the businesses in Dumptown are responding to an economic incentive. An economic incentive provides a financial motive to behave in a certain way—in this case, to recycle.

View Interactive Activity

  1. Which of the Dumptown programs provided consumers with an economic incentive to reduce their waste? [The Pay as You Throw option—people who reduce their waste pay less in fees for garbage pickup provided consumers with an economic incentive to reduce their waste.]
  2. Dumptown has decided it will commit $75,000 to recycling programs. Where will this money come from? [This money will probably come from property taxes, or from garbage collection fees or a reduction in other programs.]
  3. What else do you think may have happened in Dumptown as the various recycling programs were put into place? [The streets might be cleaner because people litter less. There might be fewer hazardous wastes like paint and chemicals put into the trash. New jobs might be created that center on recycling.]

Extension Activity

Have the students:

1. Learn more about what the people in Dumptown did to change the image of their city. This web page takes the students on a tour of the city, showing how residents now recycle, reuse, and reduce waste.

2. ReadAdventures of the Garbage Gremlin Recycle and Combat a Life of Grime ”  a comic book style story that tells what happened at one school that decided to encourage recycling. Ask the class to develop a plan that encourages more recycling in your school or community. offers all kinds of tips and advice. Here is a good place to start looking for ideas.

3. Read this which explains why the federal government has changed how it measures solid waste. While the city officials in Dumptown used the weight of garbage (tonnage) to measure the effectiveness of various recycling programs, national waste figures are now based on volume. Discuss this change. Ask the students why the change might have been made. Also ask them whether they think it was a good ideea to make the change.


Assess the students based on their completion of the worksheet including their ability to develop a recycling plan for Dumptown that maximizes the tonnage recycled with $75,000. You may also want to assess their participation in class discussion.