Recycling is now a big businessBe it in the agricultural or industrial sector, “eco-friendly” is the catchword of the day. With ever-increasing government regulations on manufacturers, more and more companies are trying to make products in an environmentally sustainable manner, and recycling has become a substantial industry of its own.
According to the Korea Environment and Resources Corporation (under the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy), the industrial recycling market in Korea alone was estimated at 3.9 trillion won ($3.9 billion) in 2003, the latest year for which such estimates are available, and it continues to grow steadily.
Last month, the government enacted a law giving preferential treatment to manufacturing companies that are deemed eco-friendly. They are given priority in the subsidiary vending process for public construction projects, as well as being granted certification for their environmental awareness, which may enhance their status with consumers.
One such eco-friendly firm is Korea MOB, a plastics re-manufacturing company that was founded four years ago on simple environmentally friendly principles: saving industrial costs and saving time.
Wherever buildings are constructed, temporary fences made of iron or steel surround the area for safety reasons. These fences, along with temporary construction facilities such as site headquarters, can cost up to an estimated 1 billion won per site, and when the work is finished in two or three years, the fences are usually disposed of at industrial dumps.
Lee Kang-bog, the founder and CEO of Korea MOB, says, “Specializing as an outsourcing firm to build these temporary fences was a niche market that I felt would enhance efficiency for the construction companies.”
Based on his experience as an employee of Posco Engineering and Construction, Mr. Lee felt the iron and steel used for temporary fences was inefficient because the metals rusted and bent, and cost too much. So he turned to plastic. But plastic is not a cheap commodity in Korea, and so he decided to use recycled forms of plastic for the fences. “Plastic waste is abundant, and I thought this would be an efficient way to use our resources,” says Mr. Lee. The process would also save industrial costs.
At the factory in Pocheon, Gyeonggi province, Mr. Lee demonstrates how used or scrap plastic is ground into powder and then remanufactured into strong, pliable plastic panels that can be used for fences at construction sites. The used plastic that is recycled is PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, which is used in building materials. It is not easily breakable and can withstand harsh weather conditions. About 120 tons of PVC are recycled at this factory per year.
Pieces of plastic 1.8 meters (six feet) to eight meters long are put into a huge grinding machine, which generates powdered plastic. The material is then put through another process that forms plastic panels of different sizes and colors. “The plastic that is remanufactured here is more flexible than iron, lighter ― meaning fewer safety hazards ― and not inflammable. It is optimal for use in construction fences,” says Mr. Lee, who designed the product over a two-year period and has 16 patents on the manufacturing process.
While it can take days to recycle iron or steel, recycling plastic takes only a few hours. “What’s so efficient about plastic is that one can use it over and over again. The fences can be pulled down and later recycled in the same process,” Mr. Lee says.
Currently, there are about 20 temporary-fence manufacturing companies in the country. Korea MOB plans to lease fences to construction companies, with payments made on the installment plan; it would be the first to introduce the concept of a “fence mortgage” in Korea.
The company has shown an impressive 200 percent annual growth rate in sales since its founding, and Mr. Lee expects the growth to accelerate in the coming years. “It’s all about prices, how much competitiveness you can achieve in prices that will determine overall performance,” Mr. Lee says. Japanese and American construction companies are already using plastic for temporary fences and other facilities at construction sites.
Every year, the Korea Environment and Resources Corporation selects about 80 small to medium-sized businesses that operate in an environmentally friendly way, and lists them in a booklet published at the beginning of the year. The companies include engineering firms, office furniture companies and energy-saving manufacturers, among many others.
“It’s not enough that these companies are recycling goods. They must be outstanding in quality and at the same time be environmentally friendly,” says Yang Gyeong-hwan, director of the corporation’s industrial promotion division.
Other notable recyclers of industrial goods include Busung Recycling, which builds roads from used rubber tires; Dorim Industries, which manufactures office furniture from used lumber, and ICN Tech, which produces water-saving equipment. “It’s not just about recycling. It’s being environmentally friendly that will determine the future [of these companies],” says Mr. Yang.
by Choi Jie-ho