In a small office in central Seoul, a group of people surround a piece of machinery with buckets filled with shredded plastic.

"This is a key ring that we made by upcycling plastic bottle caps," said Yona Kim, project manager at the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, referring to the process in which scrap plastic is used to make something of higher value than the original discarded item.

Yona Kim, founder of a group called Plastic Mill, shows pieces of shattered plastic bottle caps ready to be upcycled at the group's office in central Seoul on Feb. 19, 2021. (Kyodo)

A few minutes later, melted plastic was squeezed out of the machine into various types of mold. With a few delicate adjustments by the workers, out came key rings as well as soap savers and tube squeezers.

The initiative, organized by a group called Plastic Mill, founded by the 27-year-old Kim last July, is just one of the ways in which increasingly environmentally conscious Koreans have been tackling plastic waste -- an issue that has grown in importance during the coronavirus pandemic as more plastic packaging is discarded from food deliveries.

"The issues with plastic waste were serious even before the coronavirus. But I think people are now actually understanding their seriousness," said Kim.

The concern over soaring plastic use, meanwhile, has also fed into worries over climate change. After being used, plastic waste that is not recycled is either buried or burned -- and what is burned releases greenhouse gases.

Plastic Mill focuses on plastic bottle caps as these are often not recycled due to their small size. They are brought in by members of Sparrow Club, a group gathering Plastic Mill supporters. The name came from an old saying in Korean that "a sparrow cannot just pass a mill" to refer to people who are unable to pass by what they like or feel will benefit them.

Two thousand people participated in each of the first and the second "terms" of Sparrow Club, which began last July and September, respectively, according to the group. Some 6,000 people joined the third term -- or intake -- that started in March and a majority of the participants were women in their 20s and 30s.

As South Koreans suffered under the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, some worried that the country was also beginning to experience the effects of climate change. Among the apparent signs were 54 consecutive days with rain in summer, which the Korea Meteorological Administration said was a record for the season.

"With small and big signs of environmental problems occurring, people seem to be looking out for what they can do on their own" to solve the problems, Kim said.

But while she welcomed the popular involvement, she emphasized that nothing substantial can be achieved without the government taking effective measures soon.

South Korean President Moon Jae In's government announced a five-year "New Deal" plan last July, comprising a Digital New Deal and Green New Deal.

According to the government, a total of 73.4 trillion won ($65 billion) will be spent to implement the Green New Deal policies such as constructing eco-friendly buildings, creating green belts in cities and promoting electric vehicles and hydrogen-fueled cars.

Moon also announced last October a goal to bring carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050, in accordance with international momentum to tackle climate change following the United States' decision under President Joe Biden to return to the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Yoon Hyeon Jeong, a 16-year-old activist, was nevertheless skeptical that official action will be sufficient.

"Will there be as much actual improvement as has been talked about by policymakers? I'm not so sure about that," said Yoon, who belongs to the Youth 4 Climate Action movement of teenage activists.

She said she was shocked when she first learned the climate crisis was not a remote issue concerning polar bears but one that could affect teenagers like her now.

"After that moment, I became a vegan, went out onto the streets holding picket signs to alert people of the seriousness of it, but soon started feeling helpless as the climate crisis is a systematic problem," Yoon said, explaining why she joined the Youth 4 Climate Action group.

Members of a group called Youth 4 Climate Action hold a banner in front of the Constitutional Court in Seoul before filing a constitutional appeal against the South Korean government in March 2020. (Photo courtesy of Youth 4 Climate Action)(Kyodo)

Yoon and other members have run such projects as filing a constitutional appeal against the government. In the appeal filed in March last year, they claimed the government has violated the Constitution by failing to enforce a law for reducing emissions, damaging South Koreans' basic rights including the right to a clean environment and the right to life.

Lee Byung Joo, a lawyer who worked with the teenagers on the lawsuit, said that since the law does not mandate the government to achieve the goal, it should be given legal teeth.

"Now that the Moon's administration is claiming to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2050, to make it actually happen, that very goal should be stated as a law so that the government could be punished if it fails to accomplish the goal," he said.

South Korea, which was not among industrialized nations committing to greenhouse gas reductions under the Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997, has so far failed to meet any of its reduction goals since setting a target for the first time in 2009.

In that year, the government of then-President Lee Myung Bak announced it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 543 million tons by 2020. In 2016 under Park Geun Hye's administration, the goal was newly set at 536 million tons by 2030.

According to the Climate Action Tracker analysis produced by two European research groups, which tracks government climate action by 36 countries and the European Union, covering 80 percent of global emissions, South Korea "is nowhere near achieving the emissions reductions necessary to limit warming to 2 C, let alone 1.5 C as per the Paris Agreement."

The CAT rated South Korea's 2030 target under the Paris accord as well as its existing climate measures as "highly insufficient," which means that if all countries were to follow South Korea's approach, global warming could reach over 3 C to 4 C above pre-industrial levels.

Kim Seo Gyung, who also took part in filing the petition, said her group plans several new projects to raise public awareness of the climate crisis.

The 19-year-old university freshman said it was hard to make plans for her future when she felt uncertain about how the climate crisis would unfold 10 years down the line.

"I'd like to not care about the environment as soon as possible. I hope all will be settled soon so that I don't have to think about it anymore, though that seems totally impossible for now."