By Kim Seung-yeon
ULSAN, Sept. 14 (Yonhap) -- The coast of Ulsan, a major industrial city in the southeast, was once a site where pods of gray whales were easily spotted, a scene that has become rare as marine pollution and whale hunts took a toll.
Among the factors that made the whales disappear, the marine waste issue was what inspired Byun Eui-hyun, CEO of Usisan, to start a business to help clean up the ocean and save the endangered largest animal on Earth from dying from ingesting plastics.
"We are the first plastic upcycling company in the country to have started a business that uses marine plastic waste collected from ships to make upcycling products," Byun said during a press conference in Ulsan on Wednesday.
"The whales have motivated us, which explains why one of our very first items was the whale plush toy," Byun said, showing the soft stuffed toy made with cotton fabric upcycled using 86 waste PET bottles.
Usisan was first launched in Ulsan in 2015 as a social enterprise. It was selected as a promising startup in a competition co-hosted by SK Innovation Co., the energy unit under South Korea's SK Group.
In 2019, Usisan signed a memorandum of understanding with SK Innovation and a few other parties, including the Ulsan Port Authority (UPA), to push the business forward. Under the MOU, Usisan gets technological and resource assistance from SK and the ports of Ulsan.
The four ports are capable of having 116 vessels docked at once. The UPA supplied Usisan with 40.3 tons of plastic waste collected from the ports last year, equivalent to about 140,000 500-milliliter bottles of water.
The collected plastic waste is crushed into little pieces, cleaned up and processed into flakes to be recreated into various items designed by Usisan.
The items vary from T-shirts, towels, eco bags and umbrellas to industrial gloves and foldable carts.
The items have further diversified over the recent months to banners and panels. They are also upcycled into plastic bottles, and Usisan upcycled COVID-19 cubicles into first aid kit cases.
"We thought about how we could utilize more waste resources and came up with the idea that it'd be good if we could make things that people use in everyday life," he said.
Byun said Usisan's business model can be a template for regional job creation, especially for vulnerable groups. Usisan hires 40 percent of its staff members from among the elderly and those with developmental disabilities.
"As much as we want to do a lot of activities to help the environment, we want to be a good example," Byun said. "We'd like to ensure our company continues to grow in a way that would allow us to expand this model to other regions across the country."