The dark side of Korea’s cafe culture
A coffee at lunchtime is a major part of Korean working culture, but busy office workers rarely have time to sit down with a ceramic mug. Disposable cups are thrown away in public waste baskets, often still containing liquid. Bins full to the rim with these cups are a common sight in Seoul’s commercial districts, as are cups scattered on the ground near bins or on nearby benches.
“I go to cafes at least two to three times a day during the workweek,” said Cha Hye-rin, a 35-year-old office worker at a medium-sized company in Yongsan District, central Seoul. “It’s become a daily routine for me and my colleagues - we go out for lunch then drop by a cafe on the way back to work to get take-out drinks.”
Koreans are using an increasing number of disposable cups. In 2009, 19.1 billion non-reusable cups were used here - that number has jumped up to 25.7 billion a year, or 488 per person, according to data from the Ministry of Environment. Some 6.1 billion of those come from coffee shops.
In fact, Korea has one of the highest consumption levels for disposable cups in the world. In the United Kingdom, only 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups were thrown away in 2011, according to a U.K. House of Commons report last December. A World Economic Forum report from December 2017 also revealed that Germany uses 2.8 billion disposable coffee cups annually, while the U.S. consumes approximately 50 billion cups.
With the assistance of major cafe chains, the Ministry of Environment is currently introducing new measures to address the disposable cup epidemic in Korea. Last month, it announced it would reintroduce a cup deposit scheme that was scrapped in 2008, as well as encourage cafes to voluntarily increase discounts given to people who bring their own tumblers. The government is also encouraging cafes to standardize the materials used to make disposable cups.
While some of these changes are already being implemented, experts and environmental organizations still feel that the government could do more.
Dalliance with disposable cups
The changing lifestyle of Koreans is a big factor influencing the rise of disposable cup consumption.
Koreans today drink more coffee than they ever have. According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the average adult drank 377 cups of coffee per year in 2016, up from 283 in 2009.
According to the ministry, the coffee market grew from 4.9 trillion won ($4.52 billion) in 2014 to 6.4 trillion won in 2016. The cafe industry saw a 53.8 percent jump during that period, rising from 2.6 trillion won to 4.0 trillion won. Starbucks Korea - the country’s highest-earning coffee franchise - set an industry record last year when it posted over 1 trillion won in revenue, a five-fold increase since 2009.
This fast-growing population of cafe-goers drinks coffee from take-out cups.
“I know that some cafes offer discounts to customers who bring in tumblers,” said 27-year-old office worker Lee Tae-hee, “but I don’t carry around tumblers because they are too burdensome and the discount is small. I would probably consider using my tumbler if the discount was 1,000 won or more.”
Since as early as 2011, cafes had been providing discounts for customers who get their beverages in personal tumblers. Though some 17 major cafe and fast food chains were voluntarily offering these tumbler discounts by 2017, a monitoring survey by the Environment Ministry last year found that advertisement of the discounts was “insufficient” in 43.9 percent of the participating stores.
“Unlike in Europe, cafes in Korea are trying to serve their drinks to customers as conveniently as possible due to extreme competition in the industry,” said You Young-sun, a professor of biotechnology at the Catholic University of Korea.
The growth of single-person households and delivery businesses has also played a role in pushing up the number of discarded cups.
“Korea’s food delivery business is extremely robust, especially as many people live by themselves and don’t cook frequently,” said Lee Joong-sup, a content convergence design professor at Handong University. “But the nature of Korean cuisine also involves a lot of soups and foods with liquid, often packaged in cups.”
Industry experts currently estimate the food delivery business to be valued at 15 trillion won.
The abolition of the cup deposit scheme in 2008 also played a part in driving up the number of disposable cups being used.
Under the deposit scheme, first introduced in 2002, participating franchises like Starbucks and McDonald’s charged customers an extra 50 to 100 won for every beverage served in a disposable cup. Customers could fully reclaim this “deposit” when they returned the cups to the store of purchase. The program was scrapped in 2008, however, after claims that there were no legal grounds for the scheme to be enforced and accusations that unclaimed deposits were not being handled transparently.
“Since the ministry abolished the cup deposit system,” said Kim Kyung-shin, professor of environment and energy engineering at Sungshin Women’s University, “we saw a 43 percent increase in the use of disposable paper coffee cups.”
Barriers to recycling
China’s announcement earlier this year that it would stop importing plastic waste helped bring the plight of plastic recycling in Korea into the spotlight.
In 2015, only 8 percent of disposable cups from cafes were recycled, according to Ministry of Environment data.
The absence of regulations that standardize the materials used to manufacture throwaway cups makes recycling difficult, especially as many of the cups still contain leftover drinks.
“Unless they are grouped together, there is little financial value in collecting paper or plastic cups for recycling companies,” said Sung Nak-geun, who supervises the management and strategy team at the Korea Waste Association. “The process of separating plastic lids, straws and the cups themselves consumes too much time and labor, and is not financially rewarding enough for the companies. Some plastic cups are too thin that they cannot be recycled at all.”
Most of the disposable cups used at major franchises are either plastic or paper cups coated with plastic.
“Paper cups coated with plastic are difficult to recycle because they are damaged upon contact with water,” said You. “In order to recycle them completely, it’s necessary to separate the plastic from the paper, which is difficult to do.”
If the paper cups are printed with different colors, which is common during holiday seasons like Christmas, their value declines even further.
In the recycling centers, paper cups can be worth as much as 250 won per kilogram (2.2 pounds), but as little as 60 won per kilogram if they are colored, according to the Ministry of Environment.
Plastic from unrecycled disposable cups has the risk of causing pollution or even entering the human body.
Microplastics, which are plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters (0.19 inches), originate from plastics like bags, bottles, straws and toothbrushes. The particles are small enough to be eaten by a range of sea creatures, including fish sold for human consumption.
“Because the research on plastic is relatively new, we do not know what kind of threat it poses to people,” said Grace Park, an environmental activist from Greenpeace Korea. “Findings so far reveal that plastic harms animals’ digestive systems and damages internal organs, so we can expect plastic to be harmful to humans as well.”
According to data from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, an average of 6,670 microplastic particles was found in every square meter (10.7 square feet) of 20 Korean beaches. Korea’s microplastic levels are higher than Brazil, Portugal, Hawaii and Japan, according to a 2016 Greenpeace report, and exceed those of Hong Kong’s beaches, which average 5,000 particles per square meter, according to the Education University of Hong Kong.
The chance of recycling disposable cups improves dramatically if the cups are returned to the cafes that they are purchased from. Not only are cups from different cafes made from different materials, but large franchises have a systemic way of separating the different components of a cup like the straws, cup holders and lids to send them out for recycling.
Plastic cups made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, can be recycled into superfine fibers, recovered fuel or even plastic chips if recycled properly. Paper cups can also be reused as tissue paper or napkins.
Many cafes, however, pay little attention to where their used cups end up.
According to the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network, only around half of cafes used professional recycling companies to process cups in 2017. Some 17.6 percent relied on the same firm that the commercial building they are based in uses, while 20 percent used local government-affiliated firms which do not specialize in disposable cups. Some 7.1 percent just threw cups out in plastic garbage bags on the street, most of which are processed as disposable waste.
In response to these destructive consuming patterns, the Ministry of Environment announced a series of policies on May 10 to halve plastic waste production by 2030.
To address plastic cup waste, it announced it would reintroduce the deposit fee program, but as legislation this time. It also announced it would increase the deposit fee from the 2002 level, which had ranged from 50 to 100 won.
The program returns following a Ministry of Environment survey late last year that found nearly 71.4 percent of over 2,000 respondents saying they supported the revival of the cup deposit program. Another 18.5 percent said they would accept the revival. Only 10 percent were against the reintroduction, citing concerns for potential price increases as well as low cup return rates.
“The National Assembly is looking to incorporate the deposit fee program into regulations on recycling,” said Park Jung-chul, an official at the Ministry of Environment. “We will probably finalize it in 2019. Unlike in 2008, there will be penalties if the regulations are not followed.”
The ministry is also seeking to address the issue of how the uncollected deposit money is handled, which was a hot topic of debate when the program ended in 2008.
“We will now guarantee transparency with the money from uncollected deposit fees and likely request a third-party organization to supervise it,” Park added. “The money will go toward facilitating recycling activities and collecting disposable cups.”
The ministry also plans to allow consumers to return cups to any store within a franchise, rather than just the location where a drink was purchased.
On May 24, the ministry conducted a signing ceremony with 21 cafe and fast food brands to reduce disposable waste, up from the 17 franchises it had previously partnered with. The ministry required participating stores to standardize the materials that make up their plastic cups, limit the use of color in paper cups and partner with a professional recycling firm to process waste.
The ministry also encouraged participants to voluntarily provide discounts worth 10 percent of beverage prices for tumbler users and advertise the discounts where customers could easily spot them. Cafes already providing these discounts were recommended to increase their rates.
Participation is wholly voluntary, however, and the 10 percent recommended discount is just a guideline. The tumbler discounts will not be subsidized by the government.
“The 10 percent discount reported by the Environment Ministry is just an estimate,” said a Starbucks spokesman. “Nothing has been set on whether we will be providing customers with a discount of any more than 300 won. We are still waiting for the government to finalize policies on the disposable cup deposit program and do not know the exact size of the deposit.”
Starbucks has not raised its tumbler discount from 300 won since the May 24 signing. Other cafes like Krispy Kreme and Angel-in-us Coffee have increased their discounts from 300 won to 400 won in late May and early June.
Signs of positive change are beginning to surface. Gmarket, an e-commerce platform, reported on June 8 that its sales of take-out coffee cups during May declined nearly 15 percent on-year. During the same period, sales of reusable mugs increased 6 percent on-year.
Local authorities have also taken up the cause, coming up with their own waste-reducing strategies. Some highly concentrated commercial areas like Seocho and Seodaemun Districts are now installing coffee cup-shaped recycling bins for throwaway cup disposal.
“Seocho District currently has around 160 coffee-shaped recycle bins that process around 400 kilograms of disposable cups every day,” said Kim Jong-du, who oversees bins at Seocho District Office’s Cleaning Administration Division. “Though sometimes we have pedestrians throwing out unrelated waste, our recycling rate is high at 93 percent.”
Despite ongoing government efforts, some believe more needs to be done.
Environmental activists are calling for policies that will shift the focus from improving methods of recycling to preventing plastic cups from being manufactured at all.
“The government would be better off supporting companies that produce water-soluble or biodegradable cups and containers, which are two to three times more expensive than regular plastic cups,” said You from Catholic University of Korea.
Others believe that making environmentally friendly policies profitable will prompt cafes to pursue sustainable activities.
“Given the burden of having to wash tumblers,” said Lee from Handong University, “installing tumbler sanitization facilities at cafes could attract more customers. Cafes can also try to tie sales of tumblers together with drink revenue, offering discounts if customers use tumblers purchased from their brand.”
BY KIM EUN-JIN [email@example.com]