Questions for ‘A new way to make plastics could keep them from littering the seas’

a photo of a beach. in the foreground are hands holding a blue mesh strainer full of plastic debris from the ocean

Due to plastic’s slow breakdown in seawater, 80 percent of trash in the sea consists of this long-lived synthetic material.

MaRabelo/iStock/Getty Images Plus

To accompany A new way to make plastics could keep them from littering the seas’  


Before Reading:

  1. Think about trash in a landfill. Pick a specific item of trash, such as a paper plate or a plastic cup, and consider how that item might break down over time. Describe how that item might change physically. Finally, consider the molecules that make up that piece of trash. As that trash item degrades, how would you expect the size of its molecules to change?
  2. West of California lies a vast swath of murky ocean twice the size of Texas called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Most of this garbage is made up of tiny floating fragments of plastic. Why do you think that The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is composed almost entirely of plastic? Identify two or three possible reasons that the vast majority of this trash is plastic rather than paper, food or other wastes.

During Reading:

  1. Compared with other types of trash, why is plastic trash such a problem?
  2. What is a polymer? What is a monomer?
  3. What is PLA? What changes did Timo Rheinberger and his team make to the PLA molecule? What did the team hope to achieve by making this change?
  4. The article compares PLA to a necklace of pearls. What does each pearl represent? What does the entire necklace represent?
  5. In terms of breakdown time, how do DNA and RNA compare?
  6. What molecule did Rheinberger and his team use as their inspiration for their modified PLA?
  7. According to Mehlika Karamanlioglu, how do microbes affect the speed of PLA degradation?
  8. According to Karamanlioglu, how might RNA-inspired breaking points be used in biomedicine?

After Reading:

  1. Do an internet search for examples of polymers. Select three examples, and list them. Then select one of those polymers to research further. Complete further research to answer the following questions about your chosen polymer. Is your polymer natural or man-made? What is the name of your polymer’s monomer? What does this polymer do? Find a partner. Take turns sharing your polymer and what you learned about it with one another.

Lillian Steenblik Hwang is the associate digital editor for Science News for Explores. She has a bachelor's degree in biology (and a minor in chemistry) from Georgia State University and a master's degree in in science journalism from Boston University.