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Experiment: Identifying Plastic and Glass Type


Background: . The characterization of the physical properties of evidence, such as

glass and plastic fragments, can often be critical to a successful forensic investigation. In
this experiment, we will explore some of the key physical properties of evidence and
examine how these types of properties provide important information about the
composition and classification of evidence

In describing matter, we define two general types of properties: chemical and physical
properties. Each substance has its own unique set of these properties that dictates its
behavior and allows us to distinguish it from all other substances. Density is a physical
property that can be very useful in the identification of certain types of forensic materials,
especially plastic and glass samples. It is simply defined as the amount of mass of a
material contained in a particular unit of volume, or d = m/V. Density is most commonly
expressed in terms of grams per cubic centimeter, or g/cm3 (note: 1 cm3 = 1 mL or
milliliter). The densities of several common substances are given in Table 15.1.3 and
vary greatly. The density of water is 1.00 g/cm3 at 4°C since the gram was originally
defined as the weight of 1 cm3 of water.

Several ways have been devised to experimentally measure the density of a

substance, even for very small samples such as glass shards and minute soil samples. For
liquid samples, the direct determination of density simply requires determining the mass
of a known volume of the liquid. For example, the mass of one cm3 (mL) of a liquid can
be measured directly to give the density. Density measurements for solids are more
difficult, however, since determining the volume of a solid accurately can present
significant challenges. For regularly shaped solids, the volume can be measured by
determining the dimensions of the object and calculating the volume. In most
circumstances, however, this is not possible because of the irregular shapes found for
solids, especially for small forensic samples. Three common methods have been
employed to determine solid volumes in density determination - displacement, floatation,
and buoyancy (or up-thrust) measurements. The simplest method involves a technique
known as volume by Displacement. This method involves the direct measurement of the
displacement of a liquid, such as water, by a sample. In this process, the amount of water
displaced by a completely submerged solid is measured and is equal to the volume of the
unknown solid. The major drawbacks of this method are the potential inaccuracies in
measuring the volume change upon adding the solid to the water and occasional problems
with the solubility of the solid in the liquid. Often forensic samples are very small,
making it exceptionally difficult to determine accurately the very small volume changes
when the liquid is displaced. The advantage of this method for larger samples, however,
is that it is experimentally very simple.

In this “at-home” lab to explore methods for identifying the types of various glass
and plastic objects, you will measure the density of various pieces of these materials
[adapted from: http://shodor.org/succeed-1.0/curriculum/FOR/glass.html]. Complete the
following experiment and send in the results of your work based upon your investigation.

In the course of an investigation, you may need to identify whether a sample of

glass or plastic came from a specific source. For example, if you found a piece of window
glass at a scene, you may be able to determine that it is the same kind of glass that a
suspect has in their home. Two properties that vary among types of glass and plastic are
density and refractivity. You can use these properties to identify samples of glass.

Forensic scientists usually work with very small samples, and therefore they use accurate
and sensitive measuring tools which are very costly. We can simulate these tools by doing the
following activity.
Experiment: Identifying Plastic and Glass Type


Collect a few medium sized samples of glass and/or plastic from around your home or
outside (ideal size is about an inch (2.5 cm) on a side but samples may be somewhat
larger or smaller – just as long as the fit into the water displacement setup). Place them
into marked small plastic bags with labels such as "drinking glass", "window glass",
"plastic cup", "cd case”, etc. Note, the bigger the sample, the better will be your density
measurement. This can be done with a larger single piece or by using several smaller
pieces taken together. Follow the procedure below to determine the density of each of
these samples and record your results.


1. Weigh your sample and record the measurement.*

2. Find the volume of the sample by submerging the sample in a known volume of
water. The volume of the sample is the volume of water that is displaced when
you submerge the sample. Record this measurement (you will need some type of
graduate (marked) device to record volume changes – a small graduated cylinder
(in mL or milliliters) can often be obtained from a cooking store – be creative.
3. Now that you know both the mass and volume of the sample, you can find the
density using the formula D=M/V
4. What is the density of your sample? (Provide a chart of your data and

With this experiment, your report (below) that you will submit online, needs to contain
the following items:

 The completed data by recording the mass, volume, density and origin of each
sample you measured (suggest about 2-3 samples of glass and 2-3 samples of
 Answers to the questions below.

Sample Origin Mass Volume Density


1. What are the experimental challenges in this lab experiment? How might they be
2. Were you able to determine the differences between your sample? Why or why

*(see http://www.wikihow.com/Create-a-Letter-Postage-Scale if you don’t have access to

a scale for directions on how to build one of your own in a couple of minutes).