[Post-Covid-19 New Normal] Korea not winning war on plastic yet despite best efforts
Koreans are getting just about everything delivered to their doors, from food to clothing. The cumulative turnover for online food delivery in the January-July period was 8.66 trillion won ($7.78 billion), a 73.6 percent on-year increase, according to Statistics Korea.
The waste from “white pollution”— plastic and Styrofoam — is overwhelming the environment.
According to the Ministry of Environment, on average 850 tons of plastic waste was generated a day in the first half of the year, a 16 percent increase compared to same period a year earlier.
“I feel like I’m doing something wrong whenever I order food online,” 24-year-old Kim Ji-min said. “Whenever I order food or other products through online delivery app, they always come with multiple layers of plastic packaging. All I can do is tell them not to give me plastic spoons or chopsticks.”
Kim said she uses online delivery app — especially Baedal Minjok — at least two to three days a week. Due to the concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, Kim invites her friends to her home instead of going to restaurants or cafes. She said delivery apps are just so convenient, particularly for single-person households.
“Every time I make an order, I get a pile of plastic waste. I know it’s polluting the world, but it’s just so convenient for me as they are delivered to my doorstep very quickly,” Kim added. “Since the coronavirus outbreak, restaurants and cafes are giving me plastic cups instead of glass. It’s an undeniable fact that people want plastic cups more these days due to the concerns over contracting the virus.”
To tackle the overwhelming plastic waste that has been polluting the environment faster than ever, joint cooperation and efforts by the three main bodies — government, companies and individuals — is essential.
The government says simply reducing the amount of plastic used cannot be the end of the issue. A different approach is needed: Producing as little plastic as possible in the first place.
“Something different must be done at this point when the Covid-19 outbreak is causing an overwhelming waste and it is not being recycled properly,” Environment Minister Cho Myung-rae said during a ministerial meeting on Sept. 23.
The Ministry of Environment on the same day announced a new set of measures that can eventually reduce the plastic waste in the country — which is mainly concentrated on making the least amount of plastic as possible.
Companies — especially those offering delivery services — will be monitored on how much plastic they use to produce and pack their products.
The government also said it will come up with criteria on packaging materials that can be imposed on companies or retailers that create lots of plastic waste in the process of delivering products. Furthermore, in middle- and long-term, it will present a reporting and evaluation system targeting the companies who are wasting excessive amount of plastics.
A rule will be introduced to encourage companies to collect the delivered plastic packaging back from the customers. If they can be reused, it will prevent companies from creating additional plastic, according to the government.
Seoul Metropolitan Government has been moving quickly.
The city government earlier this year inked an agreement with the country’s six delivery companies, including Shinsegae Group’s SSG.com, with the aim of making as little plastics as possible. The waste includes Styrofoam and ice packs — which are all made of plastic — that are usually used by them to deliver products.
Overall, plastic wastes in Seoul declined by about 68 percent in 2019 compared to a year earlier, according to Seoul Metropolitan Government.
The low recycling rate is another issue that needs to be tackled, the government said.
Recycling plastic is closely related to oil prices. Plastic is made from several components, one of which is petroleum. When the price of a barrel of oil falls, the price of making plastic also decreases. When the cost of producing virgin plastic declines, manufacturers will be more likely to invest in virgin plastic rather than recycled plastics.
“As the oil prices world widely are very low at the time, garbage collectors don’t tend to recycle the two types of waste, [plastic bags and other plastics],” said an official from Seoul Metropolitan Government’s resources recycling division.
The recycling rate for plastic in Korea is known to be about 10 percent, according to Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology.
Non-recyclable plastics either end up in landfills or incinerators. The plastics take up to roughly 500 years to decompose, and they potentially leak pollutants into the soil and water. When they are burned, they produce dioxins and furan, which are harmful to humans and animals even in small quantities.
As a part of efforts to increase the recycling rate, the government said it will strengthen the regulations on the way people recycle. It will encourage more households across the country to separate the high-quality plastics, such as plastic bottles, that can be used to make textiles or cosmetic containers before they recycle them.
The local governments will also strengthen promotions emphasizing the importance of cleaning plastic bottles and containers.
Korean government aims to reduce disposables waste by 35 percent and plastic waste by 10 percent by the end of 2022.
The responsibility also lies with the companies. Companies — especially retailers — take much responsibility to the issue as they are the ones actually generating plastics in the process of making products.
“Beside the government’s tightened regulations on plastic waste, companies must invest more to develop new systems,” Kim Yi-seo, a plastic-zero campaigner from Greenpeace Korea, said. “They should get rid of double- and triple-layered plastic packages and make them as simple as possible. They must look for some alternatives that can be used multiple times over and over again.”
On Nov. 11, a total of 23 institutions and companies including the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Seoul Metropolitan Government, KB Financial Group and Starbucks Korea jointly launched a “ha:bit eco alliance,” aiming to reduce plastic waste and foster a sustainable environmental ecosystem.
As a first step toward the plan, the alliance developed an app called "happy habit." Customers who bring their own tumblers to cafes can get a point through the app, and they will be given gifts or coupons depending on the number of points they have received. A total of six franchise coffee shops including Starbucks Korea and Dal.komm Coffee are participating in the campaign in some 40 branches across the country.
“We are glad that Starbucks Korea could take a part in a campaign that aims to build a sustainable environmental ecosystem,” Song Ho-seob, CEO of Starbucks Korea, said in the statement. “We will continuously try our best to realize the eco-friendly ecosystem in cooperation with many other institutions and companies.”
Emart, one of the largest local retailers, recently installed an “Eco Refill Station” in its two branches in partnership with the Ministry of Environment.
There, customers can refill detergent instead of buying a new container. Three liters (0.8 gallons) of detergent and fabric softener is priced at about 4,500 won and 3,600 won, respectively, some 35 to 39 percent cheaper than when purchased with packaging.
Emart aims to expand the number of stations to eight by the end of the year. The retailer said the eight stations can reduce roughly 8,760 kilograms (19,290 pounds) of plastic waste in a year.
According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Environment and Emart of 11,725 customers, 86 out of 100 said they would like to use the refill stations.
McDonald’s Korea is also pushing hard. Starting from Oct. 12, McDonald’s Korea has offered customers at all branches across the country a cap that they can drink out of without a straw for their cup.
Antoni Martinez, CEO of McDonald’s Korea, recently announced that the company plans to change all of its plastic material in the store, such as forks, knifes and plastic bags, to renewable or recyclable materials by 2025.
“When major retailers are aware about the issue and join the movement to reduce plastic waste, customers will be given a chance to buy plastic-free products — and this will eventually bring changes to the manufacturers,” Kim added. “Big supermarkets must offer customers the right to choose between plastic and plastic-zero products. To protect the environment that our children live in, big retailers must be the first movers.”
Individual awareness and participation
The white pollution problem cannot be solved only by the efforts of government or companies. Individuals must also be aware and move.
“Since the Covid-19 outbreak, I often order necessities and food online. Whenever I receive the products, I think that the double and triple layers of plastic packaging is a serious problem. The plastic is so unnecessary, I have to throw them all away anyway,” a 49-year-old housewife who lives in Mapo District, western Seoul, said. “Although I know that it’s a serious issue, I didn’t know there’s anything I can do.”
According to the woman, a zero-waste store caught her attention a half year ago. Zero-waste shops develop and sell zero-plastic products and recyclable utensils, like wooden plates and stainless steel toothbrushes. Since then, she has been using zero-waste grocery stores instead of normal retailers.
“If more and more people use zero-waste grocery shops, it will be a huge help,” she added. “However, almost all people around me are still overusing plastics. I think we need something to enlighten them. Although they are aware about the issue, they don’t have any idea what they can do — just like me in the past.”
The Picker, the country’s first zero-waste grocery shop, is in Seongsu-dong, eastern Seoul. According to Song Kyoung-ho, CEO of The Picker, he thought that not making plastics in the first place is the best and the only way to solve the issue.
The Picker saw a sharp increase in sales since the Covid-19 outbreak. Song said in February, when the virus started affecting the country, its online sales jumped by up to 70 percent. The website crashed several times earlier in the year as lots of customers visited it to place orders or leave inquiries.
“It is clear that the government, companies and individuals are all making their own efforts to reduce the plastic waste, however, the major problem is that there is no coordination among them,” Song said. “The country lacks a platform that can help people be aware of the problem and encourage them to participate. By building the infrastructure, government, companies and individuals must work together to approach the issue. The long journey to solve the plastic waste issue can only be moved to the next phrase when the three take a step altogether.”
Dear.earth, another zero-waste business, agrees with The Picker.
“The Covid-19 pandemic delivers a mistaken message to people that disposable plastic products are always cleaner than others [in terms of contracting virus],” Kwon Yong-jin, CEO of Dear.earth said.
Kwon added that the efforts by the three entities — government, companies and individuals — should all be coordinated to each other in order to come up with an eventual solution to the problem.
“The three should try their best at their own positions and actually practice it instead of shifting blames and responsibilities to each other.”
Citizens are also voluntarily participating in many different types of plastic-zero campaigns. One of the biggest examples is the “Be brave” campaign which was started by Greenpeace Korea in April.
Participants to the “Be Brave” campaign need to bring their own containers when they visit retailers to purchase products — especially food. They share the photos of their participation through social media.
It became a viral hit when actor Ryu Jun-yeol participated in the campaign. Democratic Party lawmaker Hwang Young-ran, who is a member of South Chungcheong Provincial Council, mentioned the campaign, appealing to the citizens to actively participate in it during a provincial council's plenary session held on Nov. 5.
As of mid-November, a total of 193,527 people have participated in the campaign, according to the environmental organization.
“As the fundamental reason behind the recent surge in plastic waste is customer consumption patterns, in which they prefer plastics, the pattern must be changed in order to solve the overwhelming plastics problem,” Hong Su-yeol, head researcher at Resource Recycling Consulting, said. “The government must push hard to provide infrastructure to increase the number of zero-waste stores and offer customers an option to choose between products with plastic or not. But at the same time, individuals must also participate actively in reducing plastic waste and increasing the awareness of the issue.”
BY CHEA SARAH [firstname.lastname@example.org]