Transforming marine trash into usable items

Marine trash is killing the ocean.

Ocean trash is becoming one of the biggest concerns of the marine ecosystem.  Around eight million tons of plastic waste, which does not easily decompose and therefore has a direct and deadly effect on marine lives, are thrown away into the oceans every year. In 2015 alone, there were 5.25 trillion plastic pieces in the oceans, with 70 percent sunk to the ocean bed.  

To reduce the amount of ocean waste, the Korean government has been holding an annual event to find ways to upcycle ocean waste.  In the latest event in November, participants came up with ideas to convert marine waste into fashion items.

Ocean waste, much of which is non-biodegradable, entangles and kills marine animals.  Some may eat hazardous or contaminated waste and they are likely to end up being eaten by humans.  Large-size debris like abandoned vessels pose additional safety risk.

South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries stated that it collected approximately 138,000 tons of ocean waste in 2020, which was a 45 percent increase from 2018’s amount. Over 80 percent of the waste they collected was plastic.

Using discarded yacht sails to make dog leash

“The Marine Waste Upcycling Idea Contest” received over 100 submissions and the first prize went to Kim Tae-wan, who makes leash and waste bag for dogs.  Kim, who introduced himself as a “sail-maker” is born and raised in Busan, a large port city.  He makes his leash and waste bag using the discarded sail of yacht boats.

“Pet items, such as waste bags and leashes, are common-use items available at many stores,” Kim told Maritime Fairtrade. “I am a dog owner myself, so I also have been using those items almost every day.”

Kim said he decided to use discarded yacht sails and ropes as base materials because he understands their characteristics well.   

“Even before participating in the contest, I have been making many products using old yacht sails and ropes,” he said. “As dog waste disposal is another environmental problem, I thought it will be meaningful to make dog waste bags using marine waste.”

Oh Seong-chul from the Ocean Preservation Department at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said there is no imminent plan to commercialize Kim and other contestants’ products yet.

“The contest was under the theme of ‘fashion item’ for the first time since 2017,” he said during a phone interview with Maritime Fairtrade. “We won’t be selling the award-winning products, but we are considering using them as souvenirs or honorary gifts from the ministry.”

Oh said he hopes the contest will be an opportunity to raise public awareness of the seriousness of the marine waste problem and that there is an urgent need to think about how to reduce the amount of waste that is ending up in the ocean every year.

“We are going to hold this contest annually for the sake of public education,” he said. “However, if the ideas are commercially viable, and if some local companies are interested to bring them to the market, then the government is definitely willing to facilitate.”

Waste bag and leash for dogs made from recycled yacht sail.

Giving new life to marine waste

Turning ocean waste into wearable fashion items is not a new concept. Social enterprises in and outside South Korea have found solutions to recycle, upcycle, or reuse ocean waste as fashion merchandize.

For example, Tlejourn, a company in Thailand, collects discarded flip-flops and uses them to produce new flip-flops for sale.  The company has been collecting discarded flip-flops with the help of the local community since 2015.

New York-based Fair Harbor, founded in 2014, makes beach shorts with discarded plastic bottles. The company extracts polyester threads from these plastic bottles, with each pair of shorts needing 11 plastic bottles. The company said they have recycled 10 million bottles and have seen rapid growth since before the pandemic.

Although efforts to upcycle marine trash led by the government and private enterprises are important, Kim, who won the top prize at the 2021 Marine Waste Upcycling Idea Contest, said real difference can only happen at the grassroot level, where the public, aware of the importance of saving the ocean, are incorporating efforts into their daily lives. 

“As the term ‘butterfly effect’ implies, every individual’s effort to reduce marine waste can create big differences,” Kim said. “Recycling the trash that we leave behind is essential in protecting our marine environment.”

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Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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