FILE - A man carries scraps in a handcart during snowfall in central Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 16, 2016. With the recycling market dimming, Seoul is turning to upcycling.
FILE - A man carries scraps in a handcart during snowfall in central Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 16, 2016. With the recycling market dimming, Seoul is turning to upcycling.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - In South Korea’s capital of Seoul, there’s a waste problem. In April, the metropolitan area had an overabundance of plastic and vinyl waste because companies charged with recycling those materials refused to collect them because of low returns.

As a result, the untreated recycled goods were piled throughout Seoul’s residential areas. Discussions and consultations were held between officials and the companies, and after roughly two weeks the refuse was removed. But longer term, the problem remains unsolved, despite some innovative efforts to deal with the waste.

Officials have turned to “upcycling” to resolve the situation and address future concerns.

Limits to recycling

The Seoul Upcycling Plaza (SUP), a five-story building in Seongdong-gu, is home for the process of collecting, sorting, breaking down products into reusable raw materials and selling “upcycled goods.” There are 35 upcycling social enterprises that have been chosen after a competition to begin this process.

“There is a certain limit in recycling; break, grind the material and recycle it,” said SUP director Yoon Dayyoung. “It is necessary to upcycle that creates new value to the disposal so people can take benefits.”

Seoul plans to recycle more than 70 percent of its plastics by 2030. To this end, the official said, “We will supply dismantled raw materials that can be used for producing upcycle goods to the citizens via Material Bank. People can find more than 400 [types] of materials and be able to purchase it for their purpose.”

New business opportunities

The majority of companies moving into the upcycling business are craft studios that produce specialty items with the collected materials. These include origami kits made from used milk packs, plates derived from flattened wine bottles and accessories using discarded banners. Visitors can buy products or, if they choose, participate in producing the items.

A worker disassembles a discarded washing machine
FILE - A worker disassembles a discarded washing machine at the Metropolitan Electronics Recycling Center in Yongin, south of Seoul, South Korea, Jan. 13, 2017. Electronic waste is rising sharply across Asia, with serious consequences for human health and the environment, according to a U.N. study released in January 2017.

An onsite service center also repairs broken electronic devices with components taken from other machines that are no longer functional, thus extending the life of original materials and reducing waste. Onlookers in this area will see not only local brands, but also well-known imports.

Is it enough?

Despite the efforts of those in the upcycle sector, the concept does not yet appear to have enough momentum to be sustainable. Many of the studios and suppliers produce the upcycled products manually and don’t have enough manpower for production on a large scale. In addition, some people are disappointed by the fact that upcycled products are not as inexpensive as initially hoped.

But at Touch4Good, which upcycles banners and billboards into fashionable handbags and accessories, Park Mi-hyeon says it’s important to think about the process properly. She says that upcycling is more akin to creating craft or custom goods rather than mass producing items.

Park has been running various upcycling projects since 2008 and operates the material research institute for upcycling. According to Park, most upcycling material has to be manually sorted, and the procedure to refurbish it is also done by hand.

“If you consider upcycling simply as a commodity, you cannot fully appreciate its value. This process enhances the value of the goods,” Park said.

She asserts there is a great deal of potential in the upcycling market in South Korea and points to the more than 200 companies operating in the sector.

A patron holds an iced beverage at a Starbucks cof
FILE - A patron holds an iced beverage at a Starbucks coffee store in Pasadena, Calif., July 25, 2013. Straws and stirrers are among the top 10 items found in coastal trash cleanups.

?Stop the waste

However, environmental experts suggest it is more significant to reduce the amount of plastic being used than to develop upcycling. Even the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency has a web page devoted to reducing, reusing, and recycling waste.

In Seoul, to encourage reducing waste, Starbucks, the American coffee chain, has eliminated the use of plastic straws and replaced them with paper alternatives. Other restaurants have also done away with plastic straws and have encouraged patrons to bring in their own or are using metal or bamboo straws instead.

In terms of reducing waste, other eateries have banned plastic straws and are encouraging the use of personal mugs instead of disposables. Single-use plastic bags are also banned in supermarkets.

“Korea has too many people for its limited land space; hence disposal, incineration, and landfill, those measures cannot be the alternative option in Korea,” said Hong Su-yeol, the head of Resource Recycling Consulting. “Moreover, even in the case of upcycling, it still less than perfect as the processing capability is limited.”

Hong added, “It is hard to raise the rate of recycling more than 90 percent in near future. For the pending issues, we need to introduce some means like usage ban and regulation.”

Seoul also plans to regulate the use of disposable products in the public sector from 2020 to cut the consumption of disposable products.