Mike Ko Personal Portfolio


Home-School Education
Hong Kong

University of Durham
Bachelor of Science
United Kingdom

2017 - 2018
United Kingdom

    Plastics: A Durable Menace

        Earlier in the year, excited scientists and various news outlets have reported the discovery of a caterpillar that could eat plastic. The story stood for a few months, after which another study by different group quietly casted doubt on the report’s validity. This may be just another failure story in the everyday life of science, but it is not the first in the search for a way to degrade plastic. Other groups have tried using microbes to decompose the synthetic material, to no avail.

        This quest to break down one of humanity’s most versatile and long-lasting substance hints at an underlying problem, one that is not just a puzzle for science. Society today can produce various synthetic materials – plastic or otherwise – to feed into the global factory that churns out countless kinds of products for consumers. They may be durable, but all ultimately have a limited functional lifetime (when your toothbrush becomes disgustingly unbearable or a new iPhone comes out). Yet unlike organic materials, it is comparatively difficult to break them down and recycle them back to the environment, and few are seriously interested in doing so anyway. The general fate that awaits these materials is either be buried in landfills, incinerated or just left in the world; lost and ignored relics for decades or even centuries to come.

        This might be a trivial matter when resources are sufficient; we can simply produce newer, better replacements while ignoring the old items as they languish in the world. Yet a day will come when this may not be the case. Perhaps then we might be left digging through the landfills and sifting through incinerator ashes, scrounging for materials that can be reused. More pressingly, the presence of so much durable synthetics has undeniable effects on the natural environment. David Attenborough’s account of witnessing an albatross parent feeding plastic to its chick is a sufficient illustration.

        So it might be time to reconsider how we make our consumer products, where it is not just a one-way trip from production to rubbish. Maybe we should make a point of manufacturing products that are easier to breakdown, for either waste management or material recycling purposes. It may be a challenge - nobody wants to sit on a chair that might decompose at any time, but perhaps this is an opportunity for human ingenuity to shine once more.

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