I’m chatting to the friendly concierge at my hotel in Seoul. “I’d like to go here Ashely”, as I point at the paper map - Google Maps isn’t permitted in South Korea.
“Are you sure Madam?”
This is not the first time the concierge has doubted my judgement. She laughed and then looked incredibly worried when I told her I was vegetarian and looking for suitable restaurants the night before, before meekly telling me that “Korea doesn’t do vegetarian.” But that’s a story for another day.
Right now, she asks me, “Why do you want to go there?”
“Well I’m not sure but I think there is an eco store in that area, so I’d like to see it.”
“Yes. What exactly is in this area? What else is there to do?”
“Absolutely nothing, madam. No-one goes there except mechanics maybe. No guests have ever requested it. It’s a large industrial site for the auto industry.”
My enthusiasm fails to wane, and so Ashley hesitantly arranges me a taxi.
As I approach the address, my taxi man and I find ourselves going in circles through rows and rows of barren garages. Have I made a huge mistake to trust the internet?
After turning a corner, suddenly riding from the sprawling yards is a beautifully wooden clad building, with the letters SUP jumping out from it, with a recycling logo.
It’s a fascinating space. I enter to immediately be met with two regal-looking patchwork chairs made from waste fabric, a reception desk made from wooden pallets, and an attractive chandelier made of empty green wine bottles that looms over the area. To my left, a polar bear made from recycled plastic bags bares his fierce teeth at me.
I’m invited to wander around. On the ground floor there’s an educational space, including a children’s puppet theatre, and several exhibition areas.
Heading up to the middle floor I find my waste wonderland – rows of stunning, unique products upcycled from nothing.
I meet a friendly chap called Nick Kim who seems amused and almost abashed by my extreme enthusiasm.
Kim explains how Seoul Upcycling Plaza (SUP) operates. The basement floor is where unloved trash from all over the world comes to be cleaned and sorted. The ground floor is focused on education, and then the top two floors are dedicated to workshops and studios of local upcycling makers, who lovingly create contemporary, practical products.
SUP was established by the urban planning department of Seoul City. Seoul, who were keen to include upcycling makers in their plans.
Seoul’s sustainability activities are applaudable - Seoul boasts one of the world’s largest indoor green walls in its City Hall.
Kim’s passion for upcycling started purely as a thoughtful consumer, buying from the brand Freitag, and hunting out local upcycling brands, which were near-invisible and would require a visit to the designers in their studios.
The idea for bringing together good quality local and overseas brands is how Upcyclist started, the brand for which Kim is the Sales & Overseas Communications Manager.
“The concept of Upcycling is just starting to grow in South Korea”, explains Kim.
“Since I started Upcylist, people can easily get into upcycling with our shop, and the SUP education and exhibition center. Feedback from our customers is now changing from negative to positive.”
Kim first became involved in SUP when he applied for a tenant spot right before the space launched and Upcyclist was one of the first tenants that moved in. The company has been an integral part of the community spirit.
“The community of all the makers at SUP is great,” says Kim.
“We do things together, and of course, we share profits. Sometimes we share materials or develop new products together. Sometimes we open a pop-up store together in the downtown department stores. Through co-working with makers, we create our own special relationship and unique culture of upcycling in Seoul.”
One of the brands that piques my attention is Nukak. Kim explains this two year old Barcelona-born brand to me. “Tons of beautiful banners are just thrown away just after sports events and concerts in Barcelona. Kitesurf kites, inner tubes and advertising banners get a second chance to make their life cycle longer when they are transformed into unique bags and accessories. The name of the brand is inspired by the Nukak Maku, the last nomadic tribe on the planet.”
Also on display are local brands, including a luxury jeweller who uses hand-collected seashells that have been silver-mounted to create gorgeous earrings; and tiny pot holder magnets that have been made from old wine cork.
Collaboration is clearly key to developing upcycling products and this growing global movement.
“Sometimes we share ideas with other countries for designs that we believe would work well for the Korean market; sometimes product ideas come from designers overseas; sometimes we receive ideas from our customers, such as the Nukak product Vienetta.”
“Upcyclist is always trying to find the best way to encourage sustainable living, and upcycling is one of the ways to get there. We are trying to expand our range by also including vegan and fair trade products that we can sell in South Korea.
“I’m convinced upcycling is going to be on fire in Asia.”
“While the European market doesn’t consider upcycling products as particularly special or eco-friendly, as we get closer to customers with better designs and innovation, and better materials, I expect that Upcyclist will become a major platform for new upcycling makers in Asia.”
I say my farewells to Nick Kim and head back to the hotel with several upcycled purchases in hand.
I can’t wait to show them off to my friendly concierge Ashley – I just know she’s going to love hearing about my trash-to-treasure discovery!