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Mandatory or voluntary? Korea's dilemma over regulating disposables

Regulating use of disposable products 'realistically impossible': Environment Ministry

June 5, 2024 - 20:07 By Lee Jung-joo
A cafe owner puts plastic straws out for customers following the Ministry of Environment's provisional extension of the grace period to implement its ban on disposable plastics, on November 8, 2023. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Amid global efforts to curb disposable plastic consumption, South Korea has been stuck in a dilemma about whether to regulate disposable cups and straws for food services out of fear of financially burdening smaller businesses.

The country has backtracked on previously implemented disposable plastic regulations, with the Environment Ministry lifting its ban on disposable cups, plastic straws and plastic bags at cafes and restaurants, while also giving provisional approval to bring plastic bags back to convenience stores, in November last year.

The ban was initially announced in November 2019 to start in 2021, following the government’s campaign to reduce disposable cup use in cafes in 2018 and plan to reduce disposable plastic use in 2019. Korea is a heavy consumer of such throwaway items.

According to Greenpeace data from 2023, a single person living in Korea is responsible for consuming up to 13.6 kilograms of disposable items every year. Also, according to the Environment Ministry in September 2023, cafe chains and fast-food restaurants in Korea collectively used up to 4.34 billion disposable cups (consisting of 1.96 billion paper and 2.38 billion plastic cups) from 2017 to 2021.

Instead, the ministry has been testing the effectiveness of a deposit system for single-use cups, which requires customers to pay an additional 300-won deposit, in Jeju and Sejong. The system is being applied only to businesses that voluntarily participate.

When asked whether such practices would be expanded nationwide, Environment Minister Han Wha-jin responded conservatively, saying that the ministry was still studying relevant data.

"We were told that the rate of disposable cups being returned under the deposit system is around 48 percent," she told reporters last month. "The expansion of this system nationwide would entail additional costs. The government is conducting a comprehensive analysis, and based on the results, improvements to the system may be necessary."

It appears that the ministry has no other viable solutions or plans for reducing disposable plastic waste other than conducting the study on the effectiveness of the deposit system, according to experts and activists here.

Disposable paper cups are stacked on top of each other at a restaurant in Seoul, following the withdrawal of the Ministry of Environment’s ban on disposable cups in food service businesses on November 8, 2023. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Heo Seung-eun, an activist from nationwide environmental organization Green Korea United said the government “isn’t fulfilling its responsibilities.”

“While individuals should also act on their own to reduce using disposables, it is also the government’s responsibility to guide its people to the right path,” said Heo. “The Environment Ministry is transferring responsibility from the government to individuals."

This position contradicts Korea's anticipated global role, especially as the country is set to host an international committee meeting in Busan this November to establish a legally binding international plastics treaty. The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution, which includes 193 countries, aims to forge a treaty by the end of 2024 to regulate plastic use worldwide.

Environmental engineering professor Lee Jai-young of the University of Seoul also said that the Environment Ministry seems to be “taking the side of small businesses.”

“If plastic regulations become law, there will be economically vulnerable groups. There are small business owners and these regulations make it difficult for them,” he said.

“Banning paper cups completely in cafes, for example, would mean that business owners might have to hire more people to wash dishes or install additional washing equipment, which would mean more costs," he continued.

The ministry originally announced in November 2019 that it would ban disposable paper cups, plastic straws, utensils and plastic bags from cafes, restaurants and bakeries starting in 2021.

Small business owners protested, claiming they had to deal with complaints from customers who were unwilling to use non-disposables at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that they had to spend more money than before to purchase reusable cups and paper straws.

After attempting to implement the ban again in 2022, giving cafes and eateries a one-year grace period to implement it completely, the Environment Ministry extended the grace period indefinitely in 2023.

It then transitioned to making participation in the ban "voluntary."

It has set up agreements with food service franchises like cafes, fast-food restaurants and bakeries in January and April this year to encourage their visitors to reduce disposable waste voluntarily. Some franchises have signed agreements not to hand out disposable goods such as paper cups, wet tissues and plastic straws unless they are specifically requested by customers.

On the government abandoning its ban on disposables and turning to voluntary participation only, an Environment Ministry official told The Korea Herald that it is “realistically impossible to regulate the use of disposables.”

“There are a lot of stakeholders involved when it comes to regulating disposables. This includes not just the workers and managers of the industries, but also local government officials who must check whether the regulations are being put into place,” said the official.

“Realistically speaking, we need a lot more labor power than we already have -- but even if we had it, the ministry believes that it is impossible to regulate (disposables) completely. Encouraging people to transition from disposables to reusables will last over the long term.”

Lee added that while encouraging a cultural shift away from disposables is a good idea, public awareness and education on the importance of reducing such waste must come first.

“Koreans are aware of the dangers surrounding disposable waste but aren’t taught in depth why they should use less. The Ministry of Environment should educate the people on why the public should use fewer disposables if they wish to encourage a cultural shift from disposables effectively,” he said.