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Is collecting eco-friendly items really helping the environment?: In an effort to waste less, we may be doing more damage

July 24,2019
Top: Starbucks Korea distributes tumblers to people as part of its “2019 My Tumbler Campaign” in May to encourage Koreans to use personal tumblers instead of disposable takeout cups. Above: As eco bags become trendy, many brands have begun to sell their own unique designs. [YONHAP]
Whenever Kang Min-ji, 37, a working woman in Seoul, opens up the cabinets in her kitchen, she lets out a huge sigh. Nearly two shelves are filled with reusable tumblers she hardly uses, and now she’s having a hard time finding space for her other dishes. Kang says she feels bad throwing them away since the reason she purchased the tumblers in the first place was to stop drinking coffee in disposable cups.

But her good intentions, she says, were overshadowed by her impulsive shopping habit.

Piling up tumblers is not Kang’s only problem. In her wardrobe, there are two large bags full of bags, also taking up a lot of closet space.

“They are all eco bags,” Kang said. “I think I started using these bags a few years ago because they have the image of being economically friendly,” she said talking about light, reusable canvas bags intended to be eco-friendly. Kang says most of them were given to her for free at shops, events, movie theaters and so on. She did buy some of them, of course, but “only those that had unique prints or limited editions.”

Kang has already thrown out a box full of eco bags and gave many away, but they keep piling up, she says.

“I usually carry eco bags, to work, to the gym and also grocery shopping, but I hardly ever use the ones I get as freebies from stores or events,” said Kang.

There’s definitely an eco bag boom in Korea. Fashion brands, coffee shops, museums, galleries, public and private institutions, department stores and cosmetic companies all seem to create their own branded eco bags and either sell them or give them away.

“Honestly, I can’t resist purchasing eco bags at art shops in galleries after an exhibition,” Kang said, adding that she tells herself that she’s doing something good for the environment by purchasing and using an eco-friendly bag instead of a leather bag, forgetting that she already has dozens that she doesn’t use at home.

Ever since the country imposed a ban on using disposable cups inside coffee shops and fast food chains, numerous campaigns and promotional activities have been organized throughout the country, encouraging people to carry their own tumblers in case they want to have coffee on the go. The same applied to plastic bags. The use of plastic bags within stores has dropped significantly over the past few months since a law went into effect on April 1 that banned retailers from offering plastic bags.

However, some environmental activists have begun to talk about the dark side of such “eco” products.

The use of disposable cups and plastic bags has significantly decreased at local stores and cafes, while at the same time, the sales of tumblers and eco bags have increased. According to Lock&Lock, a household goods company that produces a range of food containers, the number of tumblers sold in the second half of last year more than doubled, compared to the same period in 2017.

Studies show however that these eco-friendly products may not be living up to their hype. According to the Institute for Life Cycle Energy Analysis, in order to make an impact, “a glass tumbler should be used at least 15 times; at least 17 times for a plastic tumbler; and at least 39 times for a ceramic tumbler.”

The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) also recently reported in its Life Cycle Assessment that cotton-based eco bags and paper bags have a worse effect on the environment when they become waste. Defra stated that paper bags should be reused at least three more times than plastic bags to have an impact and cotton bags need to be used at least 131 more times.

The Danish Environmental Protection Agency published a similar study last year that analyzed the environmental impacts of the production, use and disposal of grocery carrier bags used widely in Danish supermarkets. It also said that cotton-based eco bags should be reused at least 7,100 times in order for them to not have the same negative environmental impact as plastic bags. And if the bag is made of organic cotton, it should be reused more than 20,000 times. The agency insisted that it is better to reuse traditional plastic bags as many times as possible until they wear out. However, the agency admitted that this only concerns the effects of global warming and not the marine ecosystem, pointing out that plastic bags cause great damage to the ocean.

Many studies also show that manufacturing one tumbler creates more greenhouse gas emissions than producing one disposable cup. This is because it’s a lot more complex to produce a tumbler than a disposable cup. Since disposable cups can’t be reused, critics of these findings say that the greenhouse gas emission from single items should not be compared. Activists, however, insist that the findings stress the environmental effects are worse if a tumbler is only used a few times.

“We are not saying that people should not use tumblers or eco bags,” said Kim Mi-kyung from Greenpeace Korea, “but, [reminding them that they should] refrain from making unnecessary purchases that can increase waste.”

According to Kim, Korea should focus more on encouraging people to consume smarter and create less waste rather than encouraging them to “purchase” more environmentally-friendly products.

In March, Greenpeace Korea organized a small event where some 40 people gathered together to exchange clothes and bags they no longer use.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]





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