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The Peninsula

How is the Government Handling Korea’s Love of Plastic?

Published October 31, 2018
Category: South Korea

By Sang Hyun Back

With 13 million tons of plastics expected to enter the ocean this year, responsible waste management is increasingly a global imperative. Moreover, as plastic waste carries the potential to affect human health, it is sensible for governments around the world to take action to resolve this crisis. Accordingly, South Korea’s Ministry of Environment (MOE) has taken steps to reduce plastic waste. However, questions remain on how prudent its policies have been.

The immediate impetus for action came in July 2017 when the Chinese government declared it would stop importing 24 kinds of solid wastes by the end of the year, including plastic bottles and containers. Prior to the ban, China had been importing 45% of the world’s plastic wastes, including 22,097t of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) wastes from Korea in January and February of 2017 alone. Following China’s implementation of the ban, this figure dropped by 92%. Moreover, other countries redirected their waste exports to Korea, which tripled the year-to-year volume in January and February. These shifts led 48 recycling companies in South Korea to stop collecting wastes since they could not process them, leaving large quantities of uncollected trash on the street.

In response, the MOE strengthened the enforcement of existing laws and created new ones, which focus on cutting down plastics at all levels, including with production, distribution, and consumption. Through these efforts, the MOE aims to halve the plastic waste output by 2030.

In 2015, South Korea used 6.719kt of plastic resins for their plastic consumption, meaning Korea’s plastic consumption per person was 132.7kg, second highest in the world. Furthermore, Korea’s compound annual growth rate for plastic consumption from 2009 to 2015 was 3.0%, higher than developed countries like Japan (1.63%), USA (2.19%), and Western Europe (0.25%). When it came to producing plastic resin, South Korea produced 14.175kt in 2015, which was higher than Japan’s. Korea’s production was only about 40% of United States, but South Korea’s population is a sixth of United States.

To limit growth of plastics litters in Korea, the ministry has targeted both production and consumption. In 2018, the MOE enforced the 1994 law that banned plastic takeout wares in café and bakeries. In addition, the ministry will ban plastic grocery bags starting in October. Banning plastic bag is an important measure since on average Koreans use 420 plastic bags per year, which is higher than citizens in other developed countries like Germany and Spain with 70 and 120 per year respectively. Additionally, the production of colored bottles, which are more costly to recycle than non-colored ones, will cease by 2020. Once the ministry enforces these laws, plastic rubbish should go down. In 2015, 57.5% of plastic consumption was packaging. One industry where there is a large amount of plastic packaging used is the coffee industry, where in 2016 there has been an estimate of 18,000 coffee shops in Seoul alone.

However, a few problems have emerged from these laws. Foremost, small businesses are disproportionately affected.  Major coffee shops, such as Starbucks, Ediya Coffee, Hollys F&B, Tom N Toms, Caffe Bene, have entered a volunteer agreement with the government to manage their plastics on their own term. Corporate coffee chains have the resources to limit plastic wastes by implementing new policies, paper straws, straw-less lids, and ten percent discounts for customers that bring in a tumbler. Meanwhile, small businesses are having more troubles with the law because of four reasons.

First, they now have to buy more non-disposable wares, which costs more money and requires additional labor to clean. Major stores like Coffee Bay and Ediya Coffee are much less affected because they received free dishwashers and over 20,000 mugs from the Environment Ministry Korea Electronics Recycling Cooperative (KERC).

Second, some shops did not receive proper notification from the government, and were caught off-guard and ill-prepared.

Third, enforcing the law is harder for small business. There are customers that lied about getting takeout or just sitting few minutes to cool their drink. Workers in small cafés with a smaller number of workers, some being ran by only one person, must spend extra time to handle these offenders. However, larger business that have a large number of workers have an easier time enforcing the new regulation.

Fourth, materials that are difficult to recycles, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), will be phased out. The problem is finding suitable replacements. By targeting packaging consumption so hastily, it will be difficult for instant noodle companies and clothing manufacturers to comply, especially smaller companies.

Curbing plastics is a matter of great importance. Plastic wastes in the ocean are clearly causing harm. Yet, plastics are widespread, not because people are in love with them, but because plastics are convenient, cheap, and durable. It is right that the MOE is taking proactive measures to address the issue, but the ministry should be cognizant of the burdens on small businesses and think more creatively about the issue.

One place to start might be to push domestic recyclers to process more domestic refuse by limiting plastic waste imports from abroad. While Korea recycled a larger share of its total plastic waste (59.5%) than countries in Europe (31.1%), companies continue to show preference for processing imported waste because they are better in quality. As a result, Korea has continued to import plastic waste despite the overcapacity challenges created by China’s waste import ban. In addition to limiting the supply of imported plastic waste, the Korean government can also incentivize recycling companies to take on more domestic waste by implementing laws that will ensure that citizens keep their garbage cleaner.

It is important for Korean government to remember that there are other policies aside from decreasing plastics wastes.

Sang Hyun Back is a graduate student with the Asian Studies program at George Washington University. He is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Alex Santosa’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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