Recycling has been considered one of the most important civil responsibilities in modern society. Recently, however, a new term called upcycling, which refers to the process of converting waste materials into new products with artistic design, emerged. Through this process, useless materials will be reborn as products that can even create economic profits. What does the transition from recycling to upcycling in Korean society imply? What are some possible improvements to maximize the effects of it?
The transition from recycling to upcycling will function as a positive breakthrough. Upcycling is an innovation that succeeds in catching two birds—preservation of environment and value creation, with one stone. However, it is still unfamiliar to some people due to its relatively short history. Since it will create positive ripple effects, it is important to enforce necessary measures to expand this practice in society. Therefore, it will be crucial to first understand the influence of upcycling as a rising social phenomenon in Korea.
The Rise of Upcycling
The term upcycling first appeared in 1994 during the interview of Reiner Pilz, a German CEO of a technology company named Pilz, as an alternative for traditional recycling. One distinctive characteristic of upcycling is that the designing process is adopted to create appealing products with higher quality. Bae Min Ji, the secretary of Korea Upcycle Design Association (KUD), explained, “Along with trendy vintage designs, positive impressions associated with ecofriendliness allowed upcycling to become an influential social trend.” However, due to this complex nature of a reproduction process with designing, promotion of upcycling has mainly relied on the influence of companies.
▲ Bae Min Ji, the secretary of KUD. Photographed by Kim Seung Hyun.
Freitag, a Swiss industry that utilizes waterproof coverings used in trucks to produce messenger bags, is considered the pioneer of lucrative upcycling businesses. Along with practicality, the artistic designs have created a sensation among consumers. In spite of a high price due to handwork manufacturing, Freitag became a global industry with an annual revenue of approximately 40 million dollars from 350 stores around the world. As it is clear from Freitag’s example, upcycling companies, despite their use of waste materials, have been competent in global markets as upcycling became the subject of popular attention.
Upcycling, compared to reusing, has resulted in positive ripple effects in various areas. Most fundamentally, as demand for upcycled products increased, efforts to preserve the environment have also simultaneously increased. Furthermore, additional values regarding aesthetics are created through the process. “Economical utilization of waste materials resulted in gentrified values that contributed to the creation of highly marketable products,” explained Bae. In addition, upcycling has exerted a positive influence as an educational tool to familiarize the public with the process of reusing waste materials.
Upcycling in Korean Society
Upcycling was introduced to Korea in 2007 through designer groups that eventually became small enterprises. While the general process seems to be similar to foreign precedents, the formation of a Korean market was led by small groups affiliated with the social enterprise The Beautiful Store. Donation of recyclable materials eventually resulted in ideas to design new products out of such materials. Such a unique development process of upcycling in Korea resulted in a particular characteristic. Compared to foreign markets where large companies have produced items with uncommon waste materials, most upcycling products in Korea were initially made with common waste materials, such as banners.
“Upcycling in Korea is still in its embryonic stage. The number of companies is rapidly increasing, but many citizens are still unfamiliar with it,” said Bae. While there were less than five enterprises in 2007, there are currently more than 100, and the economic size of the market is approximately ten billion won. One unique characteristic of the Korean market is that various opportunities, including exhibition or education, are offered to citizens, while foreign markets are concentrated on the product itself. Bae stated that such a development of diverse contents can be interpreted as attempts to familiarize citizens with the term. As a result, upcycling is gradually becoming the symbol of sustainable consuming culture in Korea.
Even though the influence of upcycling in Korea is expanding day by day, there exist some limitations that should not be overlooked. Its imitations can be analyzed among both consumers and producers. Most fundamentally, public awareness regarding upcycling is underdeveloped yet in Korea. This eventually results in small demand for products, which will become an obstacle to amplify the influence of upcycling. On the supply side, most Korean enterprises are based on individuals or small groups of people through reliance on limited capital. “Due to such a supply structure, the general production process lacks flexibility and resilience, resulting in a fragile market,” added Bae.
▲ Messenger bags produced by Swiss industry Freitag. Provided by nookmag.com
What is Next?
On the supply side, implementation of systematic measures is necessary to stabilize the market structure. Bae explained, “According to current law, only companies that deal with waste materials can utilize them for additional purposes. Therefore, upcycling in Korea is technically illegal.” Thus, establishment of a legal basis for upcycling enterprises to use waste materials for production is necessary. Furthermore, since most enterprises collect waste materials in person, the government’s creation of an organized system to supply materials is crucial. If possible, financial incentives for upcycling enterprises will also help maintain a stable supply structure in the long term.
▲ Different upcycled products made by Korean enterprises. Provided by kud.kr
For consumers, various measures to make upcycling more easily approachable to the public need to be implemented. In order to enable such a situation, the role of organizations including KUD will be extremely important. These organizations should continue to provide various programs and promotions regarding upcycling through both on-line and offline methods, such as education and exhibitions. Bae stated that KUD is planning to put in efforts to offer more accessible information regarding stores where people can purchase upcycled products.
In retrospect, upcycling, through its utilization of waste materials, possesses high potential to become a big hope for contemporary society that suffers from destruction of the environment. In addition, it will produce additional economic and aesthetic values that will increase social and individual utility. However, it is for us to decide how we are going to make use of it. Systematic improvements and enhancement of public awareness should follow so that upcycling can become an influential social phenomenon in Korea.