Interesting online CONFCHEM discussion going on right now on the ChemWiki and
greater STEMWiki Hyperlibary project. Come join the discussion.
The more dense plastics sink and the less dense plastics float to various layers.
Density is defined as the mass per volume of any given substance. The plastics have various densities because of their molecular structures, and the solutions have differing densities because of the salt concentrations they contain. Salt water is more dense than pure water because the salt in it contributes to the mass of the entire solution. Given equal parts salt water and pure water, the salt water will be more massive; therefore, salt water is more dense than pure water.
A solid will only float in a liquid if it is less dense than a liquid. The less dense the plastic is, the higher up the tiered column it goes. Each piece floats on top of the least dense layer that can still support it.
A liquid will only float on top of a liquid if it is less dense than the liquid. The colored tiers of the beaker show this.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1246120