is a popular, engaging small group initiative activity which always
provides a rich teamwork challenge for about 30-45 minutes. Involves
thinking, imagination, action, fantasy, risk and an attractive solution.
- Can be done with adolescents or adults.
- The challenge is to move the toxic waste contents to the
"neutralization" container using minimal equipment and maintaining a
safe distance within a time limit.
- Moderately difficult - avoid using with groups who are still in the
early stages of group
development. Works best towards the end of a program and/or after
the group has come together and dealt with basic teamwork issues.
- Can be done indoors or outdoors; outdoors is more dramatic because
water can be used as the "toxic waste" instead of balls.
the rope to create a circle at least 8 ft in diameter on the ground to
represent the toxic waste radiation zone. The larger the radiation zone,
the more difficult the activity.
- Place the small bucket in the center of the radiation zone and fill
it with water or balls to represent the toxic waste.
- Place the large neutralization bucket approximately 30 to 50 feet
away. The greater the distance, the more difficult the activity.
- Put all other equipment (i.e., bungee, cords, and red herring
objects (optional)) in a pile near the rope circle.
- The challenge is for the group to work out how to transfer the toxic
waste from the small bucket into the large bucket where it will be
"neutralized", using only the equipment provided and within a time
frame. The waste will blow up and destroy the world after 20 minutes if
it is not neutralized.
- Anyone who ventures into the radiation zone will suffer injury and
possibly even death, and spillage will create partial death and
destruction. Therefore, the group should aim to save the world and do
so without injury to any group members.
- The rope circle represents the radiation zone emanating from the
toxic waste in the bucket. Emphasize that everyone must maintain a
distance (circle radius) from the toxic waste wherever it goes,
otherwise they will suffer severe injury, such as loss of a limb or even
- Give the group some planning time with no action e.g. 5 mins.
Then start the clock and indicate it is time for action, e.g., 15 or 20
- Toxic Waste is not an easy exercise and most groups will benefit
from some coaching along the way.
- The solution involves attaching the cords to the bungee loop, then
guiding the bungee with the strings to sit around and grab the toxic
waste bucket. Then with everyone pulling on their cord and with good
coordination and care, the toxic waste bucket can be lifted, moved and
tipped into the empty neutralizing bucket.
- If someone breaches the toxic waste zone, indicated by the circle,
enforce an appropriate penalty e.g., loss of limbs (hand behind back) or
function (e.g., blindfolds if a head enters the zone) that lasts for the
rest of the game. If a whole person enters the zone, they die and must
then sit out for the rest of the activity.
- If the group struggles to work out what to do, freeze the action and
help them discuss.
- If the group spills the waste entirely, make a big deal about
catastrophic failure (everyone dies), invite them to discuss what went
wrong and how they can do better, then refill the container and let them
have another go.
- Ideas for varying the level difficulty of the activity:
- Adjust timeframe
- Adjust distance between the buckets
- Include obstacles between the buckets
- Include red herring objects in available equipment
- There are invariably plenty of key communications and decisions
during the exercise that provide for fruitful debriefing.
- The exercise will tend to naturally expose processes and issues
related to many aspects of teamwork, including cooperation,
communication, trust, empowerment, risk-taking, support,
problem-solving, decision-making, and leadership.
- Can be videoed for subsequent analysis and debriefing.
- How successful was the group? e.g., consider:
- How long did it take?
- Was there any spillage?
- Were there any injuries? (Often in the euphoria of finishing
participants will overlook their errors and seem unconcerned about
injuries and deaths caused by carelessness along the way. Make sure
there is an objective evaluation of performance - it is rarely
- How well did the group cope with this challenge? (e.g., out of 10?)
- What was the initial reaction of the group?
- What skills did it take for the group to be successful?
- What would an outside observer have seen as the strengths and
weaknesses of the group?
- How did the group come up with its best ideas?
- What did each group member learn about him/her self as a group
- What lessons did the group learn from this exercise which could be
applied to future situations?
- More information on
creative debrief and processing tools
- Can be used as a staff selection or group assessment exercise.
- Can be used with large groups (with multiple kits and divided into
- The toxic waste bucket can be used upside down, with a ball balanced
- The activity can be framed in many different ways, e.g., instead of
waste, it could presented as a desirable substance, such as a life
saving serum which needs be carefully transported (suggested by
Rohnke & Butler, 1995, pp.178-179).
- Divide the group into leaders and workers. Leaders can talk but not
touch equipment. Workers cannot talk but can touch equipment.
- Lends itself to being metaphorically structured and isometrically
framed to suit specific training contexts (e.g., see "Computer
Disinfectant" by Gass & Priest in Gass, 1995,
pp. 151-154) and "Disseminating Raw Materials (Toxic Waste)", activity
#57 in Priest & Rohnke 2000).
- For added drama, the toxic waste can be floated on a platform in a
swimming pool (Priest & Rohnke 2000).
- A chemical reaction can be created by putting baking soda in the
neutralization container and vinegar in the toxic waste container. When
combined, they froth.
- Object Retrieval is a variation in which a group needs to retrieve a
heavy object from the middle of a circle, without touching the ground in
the surrounding circle (Rohnke, 1994).
1 Toxic Waste kit with activity guide, facilitation notes and daypack
- 2 x toxic waste receptacles (1 small, 1 large bucket)
- 1 x rope to create a circle for the radiation zone
- 1 x bungee cord loop
- 8 x cords
- 8 x pit balls or use water (to represent toxic waste)
- Blindfolds (optional)
- Red herring objects (optional)
Equipped with a bungee cord and rope, a group must work out how to
transport a bucket of "Toxic Waste" and tip it into the "neutralization"
bucket. Toxic Waste can be used to highlight almost any aspect of
teamwork or leadership.
Total time ~30-50 minutes:
~5 minute briefing
~5 minutes group planning time, no action
~15-30 minutes of active problem-solving
~10 minutes discussion/debrief
- Group sizes of approximately 7 to 9 are ideal, but the activity can
be done with as few as 4 or as many as 12.
Links to Other Versions
Toxic Waste and several related activities go by many different names
- Alien Transfer
- Atom Transfer
- Bomb Removal
- Commodore's Retreat
- Computer Disinfectant
- Great Pearl Capture
- Nuclear Reactor
- Nuclear Waste Transfer
- Mission Possible
- Object Retrieval
- Object Transfer
- Save the Baby
- The Great Mississippi Lizard Egg
- Three Mile Island
- Toxic Waste Dump
Gass, M. A. (1995). Book of metaphors: Volume II. Dubuque, IO:
Priest, S., & Rohnke, K. (2000).
101 of the best corporate team building activities. Tarrak.com.
Rohnke, L. (1994). The bottomless bag again!? (2nd ed.).
Dubuque, IO: Kendall-Hunt.
Rohnke, K. & Butler, S. (1995).
Quicksilver: Adventure games, initiative problems, trust activities, and a
guide to effective leadership. Dubuque, IO: Kendall-Hunt.