Picture of hands joined around a globe

Shared Responsibility

This set of resources will help teach children about taking a shared responsibility for the world, by introducing the concept Tragedy of the Commons to engage young people in the choices made by communities in managing shared resources.

Tragedy of the Commons

“What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care.” Aristotle

Imagine an open area of land, without fences, hedges or boundaries across it where cattle and sheep can graze freely. This common land is not owned by anyone, but everyone can use it to raise animals that feed themselves, their families and to sell at market. The land can support up to ten cattle on it at once, otherwise it becomes overgrazed, as the growth of the grass cannot keep up with the grazing. Imagine three farmers, Paula, Manuel and Victoria. They each have two cattle, who graze freely on the common ground. One day Manuel decides to buy another five cattle. He can now graze them for free, but there is less grass for the cattle of Paula and Victoria. The next week Victoria decides to invest in five cattle as well. Suddenly there is not enough grass for any of the cattle to graze freely.

Picture of hands joined around a globe

3 cattle in a field with trees behind

Carrying Capacity

The land can only support a certain number of animals; this number is called the Carrying Capacity. If there are too many animals the pasture will be overgrazed, as the grass won’t grow back quickly enough after it has been eaten. This means if all the farmers had too many animals than the land could support then no one would benefit as the pastureland would be overgrazed. All of the animals would suffer as they would not have enough grass to eat. This situation is called the Tragedy of the Commons.

Other Examples

This story can be used to describe other situations too. Examples of the Tragedy of the Commons include littering, pollution by fossil fuel burning, deforestation, overfishing, and many other environmental problems where scarce resources must be managed sustainably.

A classic example of the Tragedy of the Commons is in waste management. As a population grows it becomes more difficult to deal with the waste that is produced by human activity. Individuals keep their own homes clean and tidy, throwing waste away, but larger areas, like towns, are messier, as a few people litter or leave rubbish outside their homes. You may have noticed this in your own town.

Picture of lots of plastic litter along a beach
Picture of chimneys with yellow coloured smoke emerging
Environmental Challenges

When we think about the world as a whole, waste is out of control, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, causing global warming and climate change. Toxic waste pollutes rivers and lakes, plastic pollution spreads across the oceans. Water and air are like the common grazing ground in the story, not owned by anyone, but affected by everyone. Everyone seems to think that pollution is not their problem, as they think they are doing enough in their own country, keeping their own rivers and countryside clean. However, the pollution from seven billion people is spreading across the oceans and into the air and will eventually cause us all harm.

What should we do about these environmental challenges?

Solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons

Many of the environmental challenges that we face as a species do have quite easy answers. We can change the way we behave – like stop burning fossil fuels for energy, or not flying so much. Once we are aware of the problems, we can work towards solutions. The main way to deal with these problems is through teaching people about them and then talking to each other and agreeing not to act in ways that hurt us in the future. Watch the TED talk by Erik Thulin (in our playlist here) about solving overfishing for a real-life example of solving a Tragedy of the Commons.

Working cooperatively, so that no one person, company or country takes advantage of the “commons” is a great way to solve the problem. Imagine again our farmers in the first example. They can talk to each other and agree not to have more than a certain number of animals, a total lower than the carrying capacity of the land. Everyone could continue to gain from the common grazing land, and it won’t become degraded and unusable. These solutions work for overfishing too. Another solution may be to keep a reserve of land back from grazing, or to rotate among other areas of grazing.

Can you think of some solutions to littering in the countryside or plastic pollution in the oceans?

Can you think of ways to make people/countries do this?

Smiling waste collection team from West Devon emptying food waste caddies into a waste collection vehicle

Careers Advice

Working in waste is not just about emptying people’s bins. There are many different types of job available in this vitally important (and often ignored) part of our society.

The importance of the waste industry has been highlighted during the Coronavirus pandemic, as all waste sector employees are considered as keyworkers!

Listed below you can find out a bit more about different parts of the Waste Industry and consider whether you would want to work in these jobs.

Icon for Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender Equality
Icon for Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities
Icon for Sustainable Development Goal 13: Climate Action

Gender is an important aspect of any part of society, no less in the waste sector.

The United Nation’s Environment Programme has carried out some research around this subject in Bhutan, Mongolia and Nepal, which might be an interesting topic to explore with KS3, 4 & 5 Geography students. The Gender and Waste Nexus can be found below:

Close up of whiteboard with coloured whiteboard pens and board rubber

Waste Starters

Starter Activities and 5 minute fillers

Use our lesson starters at the start of each school day as children enter the classroom to register, or as an intro to a waste or sustainability topic lesson, or just as a five minute filler when you have a few moments. Download our PowerPoint and instructions for the full package.


Waste starters.pptx

Starter activities & 5 minute fillers.pdf

Close up of whiteboard with coloured whiteboard pens and board rubber

Snakes and Ladders

The well-known traditional Snakes and Ladders game with an ‘eco’ twist! Download the board and use it with cards on either a 3Rs or compost theme. Use the game as a 5 minute filler with a class, during wet play, with an after-school or breakfast club, or with your Eco Team.

Snakes and Ladders game board

3Rs Snakes and Ladders – Teachers instructions

3Rs Ladders cards

3Rs Snakes cards

Composting Snakes and Ladders – Teachers instructions

Composting Snakes cards

Composting Ladders cards

5 smiling children in school uniform standing behind a recycling box full of clean recyclable household packaging

3R’s Monitoring Activities

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle!

Has your school got recycling bins? Do you know where your rubbish and recycling goes? How are your dealing with food waste?

There are some simple questions you can ask when looking at your systems within school to deal with you rubbish and recycling. Our team here at Waste Education HQ can help with in-school workshops and practical help and info around waste and recycling. The activities on this page will help your school get the most out of your recycling systems.

3Rs Monitoring Activities

These four hands-on activities allow pupils to monitor how well your school’s 3Rs systems are working. The activities can be used by a teacher with a class of KS2 pupils, an Eco Co-Ordinator with a mixed age Eco Team working on a ‘Waste’ topic, or a combination of the two.

You may want to start with activity 1, then progress through activities 2, 3 and 4 in order. However each activity works well on its own, so dip in and use them to suit your school and the time you have available.

As well as engaging pupils with waste issues, these monitoring activities produce pupil-friendly data which can be used in maths teaching, shared with the rest of the school in assembly and displayed on your Eco-Schools notice-board. When repeated over time they will provide great evidence that your school is getting better at using the 3Rs. Celebrate your achievements with the whole school, and don’t forget to share your data with governors, parents or an Eco-Schools Green Flag assessor.

Children with recyclable material labels

5 smiling children in school uniform standing behind a recycling box full of clean recyclable household packaging

Activity 1 

Small group activity: check that all rooms in your school have the containers they need to reuse, recycle and compost.

Activity 2a

Class activity: conduct a recycling audit to find out if the paper in your recycling containers has been used on both sides.

Activity 2b

Class activity: record your audit results then use this spreadsheet’s pie and bar charts to inform your plan of action.

Activity 3a

Small group activity: conduct quick spot checks around school to find out if people are reusing paper before recycling it.

Activity 3b

Small group activity: use this spreadsheet to record your spot check results and analyse its charts to see change over time.

Activity 4

Small group activity: check the rubbish bins around the school for materials that should have been recycled.

Activity 5

Small group activity: School 3Rs Audit sheet