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Plastic bottle waste help whales lead a healthy life


In cooperation with the Korean government, major companies, social enterprises, and international organizations, Ulsan Port Authority (UPA) has initiated a project of “upcycling plastic waste coming from ships,” aiming to solve harbor-specific ocean plastic pollution. The UPA has improved upon the policies on discharging plastic waste from ships and created an upcycled product using the plastic waste. The UPA’s practice has contributed to reduce ocean plastic pollution.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

(1) Background
Some researchers have claimed that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. A dead baby whale was found with 40 kilograms of plastic in its body and a sea turtle died from eating plastic 11 days after being released. Marine pollution by plastic has been getting worse. According to the MARPOL Convention, which was adopted to prevent the pollution of the marine environment by ships; garbage from ships should be dealt with in a regulated manner. However, due to low environmental awareness, different types of garbage are disposed into the sea. When discharged on land, most of the garbage is incinerated without being recycled, which leads to air pollution. The UPA, the main controlling authority of Ulsan Port, determined a solution to reduce the pollution of marine environment caused via plastic. In particular, the UPA zeroed in on a method that could be implemented at ports throughout the world.

(2) Progress
[Stage 1] Generating new ideas and setting up a cooperation system
To create a practical and viable route to solve environmental problems, related organizations and businesses gathered to organize hackathons, meetings to come up with new ideas. Experts were invited to review the commercial potential of the new ideas. As an effort to put the newly generated ideas into action, public-private, social enterprises, and international entities agreed to work together to protect the “Marine Environment of Ulsan Port.” And then, we made a decision to upcycle plastic waste discharged from the ships entering Ulsan Port.

[Stage 2] Propelling the project
First, a new policy was established for waste from ships to be separately discharged for upcycling. The UPA encouraged shipping companies, their agencies, and the loading/unloading companies to participate in this new policy. Then, the UPA determined a business model via communications with companies collecting waste oil and sludge from ships and social enterprises storing and upcycling the plastic waste. This was to carry out the whole process from collecting and storing the separated plastics to making products with the plastic waste. Thanks to these efforts and programs, plastic waste from ships was upcycled into “Byeolggaru (stardust) whale dolls” symbolizing Ulsan city. The name of Byeolggaru comes from the fact that barnacles living on the back of humpback whales reflect off the sunlight and look like twinkling stars from a distance.

[Stage 3] Spread and sharing
Along with the sponsors, the UPA attended various local festivals and fairs and did some promotional activities to spread awareness of our project and raise the profile of the upcycled products. Our project was also introduced as a best practice at conferences at home and abroad. A permanent exhibition room for this project was set up at the Whale Museum in Jangsaengpo, Ulsan. Visitors can have an opportunity to learn about this project. In addition, we worked with the local government, public organizations, and major companies to extend the product lines using the upcycled materials. As a result, we were able to launch several new products including Gangchi (sea lion) doll for Ulleungdo Island and Keun Aegi (the eldest daughter-in-law) doll that symbolizes Ulsan city.

Innovation Description

What Makes Your Project Innovative?

The “UPA’s project to upcycle plastic waste” has some differences from what has been tried previously to address the marine plastic pollution.

(1) We took note of the discharged plastics from ships that are destroyed without recycling collection and separation. This is the “first ever” implemented upcycling project for plastic waste coming from ships at port.

(2) This project has benefitted the local economy. To produce final products made with plastic waste, we worked with social enterprises in the local area.

(3) Most of all, this solution can be applicable to any ports around the world. It has the potential to spread as a response to marine plastic pollution at home and abroad.

What is the current status of your innovation?

Separating recyclables from plastic waste has become a norm among the shipping companies, their agencies, and the loading/unloading companies based in Ulsan Port. The upcycling process to make the final products using the discharged plastic has been going smoothly. Any side effects or problems occurring at each stage are thoroughly monitored and addressed to enhance the level of sophistication and completeness of this commercial project. Research is underway to develop new upcycled products and launch new product lines in collaboration with related groups, which will bolster the business sustainability.

Innovation Development

Collaborations & Partnerships

This project was not achievable without collaboration between the main agents. The government and the UPA were in charge of promoting the new policy on separating plastic waste at Ulsan Port, while both large and local Korean companies took care of marketing and getting this project to achieve commercial sustainability. Social enterprises produced and sold the final products. International organizations supported publicity for this project.

Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries

(1) This project has contributed to improve the quality of the atmospheric environment by reducing the amount of previously burnt plastic waste.

(2) The unique products and brands have helped local social enterprises raise their profiles. This has led to job creation especially for the socially underprivileged.

(3) It has benefitted the shipping companies and waste management companies at Ulsan Port that had carried the burden of the costs for incineration and carbon emission rights.

Innovation Reflections

Results, Outcomes & Impacts

(1) Economic benefits
This project reduced the costs for incineration and carbon emission rights, which is about 370,000 KRW per ton.

(2) Environmental effects
Until now, 5,300 upcycled products have been produced with 79,650 plastic bottles (approximately 1.593 tons).

(3) Social economy
It has contributed to stimulating the social economy, a people-centric or human-oriented economy, by creating three new jobs for the socially vulnerable and increasing the product sales of social enterprises by 347% compared to the previous year.

(4) Possibility of spread
Upcycled product lines were extended in collaboration with the local government, public organizations, and major companies. Meeting with other port authorities confirmed the prospect of applying this project to other ports at home and abroad.

Challenges and Failures

There was some trouble separating the recyclables from the garbage because the crew on ships put waste all together into one-ton bags. To address this problem, we provided two types of one-ton bags, green and yellow. People on ships were encouraged to discharge waste separately depending on whether the waste were recyclable or not.

Reviewing the performance of this project that was started this year, we found that it needs a lot of time for the new policy to be fully established. For a speedy settlement of the policy in the future, we have shared our experience with our government agencies, other port authorities, and shipping businesses.

Conditions for Success

First and foremost, the UPA and other partners in this project should make continuous efforts for publicity and enlightenment to ensure that this mission is well established. It also requires the active involvement from the parties doing business in the Port of Ulsan such as the cargo shipping companies, agencies, and the loading/unloading companies. Furthermore, this project is a port-specific model that can be applicable to any port. With the government’s support, it could gain momentum to spread the positive outcome achieved here and share its practice with ports around the world.


The problem of marine plastic pollution has become a global issue. No country is free from this issue, and each nation is trying to come up with its own solution. We began this project with the question of “what can a port do to deal with the marine plastic pollution?” Rest assured that this practice can be introduced and implemented in any place where a port is located. Since ports all over the world are creating value through the sea, ocean plastic pollution is a global issue that requires cooperation among all nations. In that sense, our practice should have enough potential to be shared and implemented to address global concern in relation to plastic waste.

Lessons Learned

The crew members on ships abide by the law on the management of waste because it is compulsory. They follow the rules out of obligations rather than on a voluntary basis. But while the crew members are participating in this project, they realize that they are creating new values for the marine environment. This could be a critical point in this project whereby crew members change their attitude toward the environment beyond simply acting within the law.

Everyone, involved in this project, discovered the plastic pollution has become a major threat to our own lives, including economic lives, as well as wildlife. We should also recognize the Butterfly Effect that tiny changes such as separate garbage collection can in fact make a big difference. We hope our practice will be shared among the ports at home and abroad and contribute to improving the environmental awareness and protecting the natural environment.

Supporting Videos

Year: 2019
Level of Government: National/Federal government


  • Implementation - making the innovation happen

Innovation provided by:


Date Published:

28 October 2021

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