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Greener Pastures

2023 WINTER

Kokkiri Gongjang Recycles Toys and Spreads Joy

Although playing with toys is essential for children’s physical and emotional development, toys are often easily discarded once they are no longer considered interesting. As awareness of the risks of plastic use and consumption grows, there is now an increasingly urgent need for people to reconsider the life cycle of plastic toys, from their purchase and repair to their ultimate disposal.
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Kokkiri Gongjang produces animal-shaped junk art using scrap toy parts to raise awareness of the dangers of microplastics. This work of art is called School of Salmon.
© Elephant Factory


Some parents may often feel the need to give their children anything they ask for. How­ever, amid ever-increasing environmental pol­lution and the worsening climate crisis, plastic consumption is a growing concern, as is the im­pact of our lifestyles on the environment: what we eat, drink, and wear. The toys our children play with are no exception.



TOYS TURNED INTO TRASH

Today, most children’s toys are made primari­ly of plastic. There is now a trend toward using eco-friendly materials for a range of consumer products, but unfortunately, many discarded toys are still classified as general waste. Apart from plastic, they often contain different components such as steel or rubber, used in wires and screws, which means they must either be incinerated or disposed of in landfills. Ironically, if they were made entirely of plastic, they could be partially melted down and recycled.

The reality that most toys cannot be recycled is obviously a serious problem, but so too are the pol­lutants released during the disposal process. Ulti­mately, the most sustainable solution is to reduce the number of toys that are discarded by making efforts to get more use out of them. Kokkiri Gong­jang, located in Ulsan in southeastern Korea, is a social enterprise that is deeply committed to ex­tending the life cycle of children’s toys.

KOKKIRI GONGJANG’S BEGINNINGS
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Donations to Kokkiri Gongjang are classified into repairable and unrepairable toys. Those that can be repaired are distributed to disadvantaged children, while the others are disassembled and either harvested for spare parts or recycled.
© Elephant Factory

Toys are discarded for a variety of reasons. They may break, or children may no longer find them interesting or entertaining. The toys are then typ­ically left unused for a period of time before being thrown out and replaced by new ones. Persuading children to regain interest in old toys can be dif­ficult, but trying to find someone to repair bro­ken ones may prove to be just as difficult. Kokkiri Gongjang founder Lee Chae-jin has firsthand ex­perience with these problems.

While running a toy rental shop, he witnessed how easily toys broke and were discarded. As he looked for toy manufacturers or distributors who would offer repairs, he found that only five percent out of the 600 manufacturers he surveyed did so. It was no wonder then that so many children’s toys were being thrown away. Convinced that this was simply unacceptable, Lee formed a group of individuals who were all skilled at fixing broken objects. This “Toy Repair Squad,” the forerunner of Kokkiri Gongjang, initially visited day care centers to repair children’s broken toys.

As a token of gratitude, some of the day care centers donated toys, which were then distributed to other day care centers in need. Kokkiri Gong­jang gradually built up a reputation as an organi­zation focused on recycling and sharing toys. Ev­ery year, day care centers in Korea call in compa­nies to disinfect their premises as well as the chil­dren’s toys. Unlike ordinary disinfection compa­nies, the staff of Kokkiri Gongjang doesn’t just disinfect toys but also fixes any broken ones they find, and the company currently collects over ten thousand toys each year. When these are donated to marginalized children, they represent precious gifts that bring fun and enrichment to their lives.

TOY RECYCLING TO NARROW GAPS
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Kokkiri Gongjang employees repairing broken toys.
© Elephant Factory

Children typically play with age-appropriate toys that vary depending on their developmental stage. Children from more affluent families and those who attend well-funded government-run day care centers are able to enjoy a variety of excellent toys, but, unfortunately, the same is not true for chil­dren from lower income families. This inspired Lee Chae-jin to go beyond the Toy Repair Squad’s voluntary services and establish the Kokkiri Gongjang enterprise. It repairs and disinfects ap­proximately 70 percent of the collected toys, be­fore distributing them to disadvantaged children. This process not only benefits the environment by reducing plastic waste, but it also aids the develop­ment of children’s sensory skills by allowing them to play with a wider variety of toys.

Every month, individuals and organizations across the country donate between 40 and 60 tons of toys to Kokkiri Gongjang. Along the way, the initiative has grown from a small volunteer group to an established social enterprise with lo­cations in Ulsan, Seoul, Incheon, and Gyeonggi Province. This journey and growth have been fu­eled by a greater awareness of mounting toy waste and its environmental impact, alongside the com­pany’s commitment to social values such as reduc­ing waste and caring for disadvantaged children.

TOY ADVENTURE
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The assembly process of “co-bot,” an autonomous AI robot made from recycled plastics, includes elements of coding to stimulate children’s imagination.
© Elephant Factory

The toys processed at Kokkiri Gongjang go through several stages of recycling. First, volunteers care­fully fix any repairable toys, which are then do­nated to other organizations to extend their life cycle. Toys that cannot be fixed, or whose col­ors have irreversibly faded, are meticulously dis­assembled. Their non-plastic components, such as wires, screws, and speakers, can then be used as spare parts for other toys. The remaining plastic pieces are sorted by color and material so they can be recycled. Synthetic resin, polypropylene, and polyethylene have different melting points; once these pieces are melted down, they can be used to manufacture completely new products.

Toy plastics have relatively low toxicity and are over ten times more valuable if their com­ponents are properly separated. For this rea­son, Kokkiri Gongjang uses hyperspectral sort­ing and recycling machines that produce around 300 tons of recycled plastic with 95 percent puri­ty every month. This is used to make items such as flowerpots and key chains, which are then distributed to children. Kokkiri Gongjang also hosts educational events where groups and fami­lies can witness its closed-loop recycling process. The experience helps children understand that the toys they no longer play with should not be thrown away but can instead be reused or recy­cled.

EDUCATIONAL BENEFITS OF RESOURCE RECYCLING
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These key rings, part of Kokkiri Gongjang’s eco friendly product range, were made using plastic flakes from reprocessed plastics.
© Elephant Factory

Children who visit Kokkiri Gongjang can al­so donate their unwanted toys. Becoming donors instills in them a sense of pride in having do­ne something good. Adding joy to the act of giv­ing, they can then choose to take home one of the toys either repaired or disinfected by Kokkiri Gongjang. Sharing unused toys with those in need, rather than throwing them away or neglect­ing them, undoubtedly teaches children a valuable lesson. Overall, the Kokkiri Gongjang experience raises awareness of the importance of environ­mental protection, energy conservation, and car­ing for children from disadvantaged families.

Yoo Da-mi Writer

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