Education: Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)
Eugene Jung and the more than 300 SK team members at SKC Inc.’s Georgia facility celebrated a milestone a few years ago, not with expensive champagne but with a mass-market sports drink.
For years, the consumer packaged goods industry had been trying to solve a problem. When it came to recycling, the Shrink Sleeve Label (SSL) contaminated clear PET bottles with its ink and clogged up the recycling process, adding time and complexity.
Eugene played a major role on the SKC team that solved this problem. They created the world’s first SSL that could be recycled in the same stream as the main PET bottle. Five years after launch, SKC Ecolabel is used widely by major consumer goods and beverage companies, helping streamline the recycling process for billions of PET bottles in the U.S. and beyond.
We talked with Eugene about the SKC Ecolabel breakthrough and his passion for chemistry, which provided the building blocks for the R&D process.
What made you want to pursue a career in science and engineering?
When I was in high school in Omaha, Nebraska, I went through a tough time in school as a recent immigrant. My 9th grade chemistry teacher helped me a lot adapting to American culture and chemistry became my favorite subject. Between chemistry and chemical engineering, I chose chemical engineering because I liked real-world problem solving aspect of engineering.
How did you end up at SKC?
I attended Georgia Tech for college because it had one of the best chemical engineering programs in the U.S. When I graduated, I wanted to stay in Georgia. During my job search, I found an opening at SKC, which has a great reputation in Korea, and applied for a process engineer position to work on specialty films such as shrink film. I worked in quality and assurance (Q&A) and research and development (R&D) before moving into my current role in technical sales. It’s been a great experience to be involved in almost every aspect of the product.
What led to the development of Ecolabel?
The red flag was raised in late 2000s. The brand owners wanted the shelf appealing look of a shrink sleeve label, but recyclers couldn’t recycle bottles with a shrink sleeve label on it. As plastic waste became more of an issue in mid-2010, SKC decided we wanted to do something about it. We had to find a solution.
How did you find the solution and create Ecolabel?
It took persistence and coming up with an entirely different approach to the problem. At the time, everyone in the industry was trying to solve the problem by separating out the shrink sleeve label either by density separation in water or de-labeling technology by special seaming solvent.
We thought there might be a better solution. What if the label could stay in the same recycling stream? Fortunately, we had a special film at SKC that worked – no clumping or issues in recycling. Then, we found some inks that could be easily removed. It was a much more direct and effective solution.
What challenges did you face along the way?
It took us a lot of time and effort to change the mindset of whole industry. Everyone in the industry viewed SSL as a contaminant in the recycling stream. We had to make several rounds of visits to brand owners and the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) to convince them that the SSL weighs up to 10% of packaging weight and can’t be left behind for landfill waste. It took us about two years to convince most of people in this industry.
How did it feel to finally solve this problem?
It felt special. We did something for our customers, and we did something that helped the environment. We’re helping reduce the plastic that ends up in landfills or even the ocean.
When you earn a patent, you get all these letters from companies wanting to sell you a framed copy of the patent because it’s posted publicly. For this one, I’ve thought a few times, “Maybe, I get the frame.”
What’s next for you and Ecolabel?
We’re really just at the beginning for Ecolabel. It has been used for labels on a range of products – teas, juices, sports drinks, laundry detergents and dishwasher soap. We can extend the technology to even more applications and new geographies too. The focus on recycling and making it easier to recycle products is only going to increase.