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[Herald Interview] Discarded masks showing up more on Korea’s beaches: green group

This photo shows ocean trash found and collected by oceankind. (oceankind)
This photo shows ocean trash found and collected by oceankind. (oceankind)
Beach pollution is a serious problem. Some 11 million metric tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean annually, according to a 2020 study co-authored by researchers at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Against this backdrop, one couple in Gangneung on the east coast of South Korea in Gangwon Province have embarked on a mission to clean up Korea’s shores and the ocean.

“We have actually been keeping record of trash on the beaches even before the pandemic began and masks are now much more commonly found,” said Kim Yong-kyu, the CEO of oceankind, a company focused on marine conservation.

“There is a form, an international one, to fill out for keeping record of trash collected on the beaches. Masks have been introduced as a new category. It goes to show how easily found they are,” the 42-year-old added.

Together with his wife, the scuba diver couple founded the company in 2016 to raise awareness on marine environmental issues after spending a great deal of time in the ocean as underwater divers and witnessed ocean pollution firsthand. 

oceankind CEO Kim Yong-kyu (oceankind)
oceankind CEO Kim Yong-kyu (oceankind)
“We thought, ‘let’s not just watch what is happening but do something about it,’” Kim said.

The company, though only consisting of the two of them for now, does a wide range of work including conducting marine environment research, giving lectures as well as organizing beach cleanups mainly along the east coast with the local community. Having studied design and photography, the couple also uses their artistic skills to launch campaigns and exhibitions on the marine environment. They also run social media accounts to document their trash pickup activities, highlighting the seriousness of ocean pollution.

The name “oceankind” is a play on words -- combining the words “mankind” and “ocean.” Kim said the word “mankind” felt too self-centered and focused on humans so instead, he added the word “ocean” in the hopes that the portmanteau could represent all sea creatures and living beings that rely on the marine ecosystem.

“It was also to take a kind and friendly approach to protecting and taking care of the ocean,” he explained.

As the pandemic brought change to many aspects of our lives, it also did to the ocean.

“When you travel to seaside towns, there are fewer people around, compared to cities for example, and you are distanced from others so people take off their masks for some fresh air as they go for a walk. I do, too. But when the wind blows strong, people lose their masks or drop them and sometimes end up being blown away.”

But masks are just the tip of the iceberg.

“I once saw a fish that got stuck in a single use plastic glove while scuba diving,” he said.

From plastic water bottles, disposable containers to plastic forks and spoons as well as dental floss picks, a log of trash collected by oceankind shows a wide range of items we use in our everyday lives.

“Most of them are plastics and it shows how anything we use can make their way into the ocean once they are thrown away,” he said.

Kim explained that animals living in the worsening marine environment are effectively “living with trash.”

“When you come to the beaches, you can see how easily the trash we throw away can flow into the ocean. The ocean, in a way, is completely defenseless,” Kim said.
 
This photo shows ocean trash found and collected by oceankind. (oceankind)
This photo shows ocean trash found and collected by oceankind. (oceankind)
As a scuba diver, he sees trash that have made their way into the ocean. Once it sinks into the ocean ecosystem, it stays there and accumulates.

“But from the outside, you can’t see this sign of (the ocean) being directly harmed,” the CEO said.

To help protect the ocean, Kim said not throwing away trash carelessly is of utmost importance.

“To do that, we need to ensure the products we use don’t easily become trash. That means we think twice of what we are using, and reduce single-use items regardless of their materials. Reducing the amount of trash will reduce the amount of ocean pollution. More than anything, we need to focus on preventing stuff from entering the ocean,” he said.

There is a growing level of interest in society when it comes to cleaning up trash, but fewer efforts have been made in reducing the amount of trash produced, he said.

“If we improve on this bit, I believe that the amount of ocean pollution will also be reduced,” Kim said.

By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)
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