[CHANGING WORLD] Breaking Korea’s single-use plastic habit
Government and business initiatives join grassroots efforts to drive shift to reusable alternatives
A decades-old traditional market in Mangwon-dong, western Seoul, known for its affordable fresh produce and tasty street food, has recently been at the forefront of a grassroots plastic-free movement in the neighborhood.
Mom-and-pop shops and vendors at Mangwon Market in Mapo District have taken part in a campaign to encourage people to bring reusable containers and reduce single-use plastics since May.
However, Lee Bok-soo, the 71-year-old owner of Namkyung Banchan and an environmentalist, has been urging customers to use reusable containers far longer, since 2018.
Once a lonely crusader of the plastic-free movement, Lee’s efforts have spread across Mangwon Market, and 87 shops there are taking part in the campaign to encourage the use of multi-use containers.
Lee hands out yellow coupons emblazoned with: “Have courage, Mangwon Market!” The slogan is a play on the Korean word for container, yonggi, which can also mean “courage.”
Customers who bring reusable containers can collect a coupon. When then collect 10, they can be exchanged for a 10-liter plastic garbage bag — worth around 300 won and required for sorting and disposing of waste — for each coupon.
When customers bring their reusable containers from home, Lee packs the shop’s banchan (side dishes) in them.
“I’ve been doing this for many years,” said Lee, showing laminated photos of longtime customers who always bring reusable containers and clippings explaining the environmental hazards of plastic. “But the stage we are at right now is still baby steps.”
Lee has sold vegetables and Korean side dishes in Mangwon-dong for over 40 years. He has also discouraged customers from using disposable plastic bags from the get-go, when he opened Namkyung Banchan in 2015.
“Some other merchants didn’t like me nagging them about cutting down on disposable plastic because they say customers won’t buy from them if they do,” said Lee.
“We are finally gaining some traction. Before, people didn’t even pay attention. I was on my own. But now, there is more awareness because the environmental situation is more urgent.”
The Korean government is pushing a transition to a plastic-free society, reducing waste and discouraging the use of single-use cups, containers and utensils. In recent years, reformed environmental laws and regulations have backed such initiatives.
Despite a spike in the use of single-use plastics in Korea due to the Covid-19 pandemic since last year with increased deliveries and take-out services, companies and consumers alike are more aware than ever of the need to reduce waste and adopt a sustainable lifestyle.
And steps are being taken in all sectors, from the government setting more stringent regulations to restrict harmful plastics, companies producing more eco-friendly products and packaging, civic groups pressing for further action and individuals changing consumer habits.
Korea aims to reduce its plastic waste by 20 percent by 2025 by scaling down the output of plastic products and increasing recycling.
It also aims to raise its plastic recycling rate from the current 54 percent to 70 percent by 2025, announced Korea’s Ministry of Environment in December last year.
This is part of a longer-term plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by plastics by 30 percent by 2030, and replace petroleum-based plastics with bioplastics by 2050.
The outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020 proved to be somewhat of a setback in Korea’s movement to reduce plastic waste as people were ordering more food delivery than ever and cafes returned to permitting single-use cups.
Overall deliveries were up 20.9 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 and food deliveries up 78 percent, according to the Environment Ministry. Plastic waste was up 18.9 percent, vinyl waste up nine percent and paper waste up 24.8 percent.
The amount of plastic waste is on the rise every year, and 10.36 million tons were generated in Korea in 2019, according to statistics from the Korea Environment Corporation released in 2020. Statistics have not been released yet for this year.
This compares to 6.93 million tons in 2015, 7.17 million tons in 2016, 7.98 million tons in 2017 and 8.24 million tons in 2018.
But the government and public are emerging from the pandemic with a stronger awareness of the need to cut down on plastics as a part of global efforts to combat climate crises and become carbon neutral.
“The government aims to fundamentally reduce the use of plastics from the production stage, recognizing the issue of increased plastic waste following the Covid-19 pandemic and the need for long-term measures to eliminate fossil fuel plastics in order to become a carbon-neutral society by 2050,” said Kim Go-eung, director of the resource circulation policy division at the Environment Ministry.
The Ministry of Environment announced in March that through revisions to the Act on the Promotion of Saving and Recycling of Resources, it will further expand restrictions on single-use plastics and other disposable items in more sectors.
Korea has banned disposable cups in cafes for dine-in customers since 2019.
Large coffee chains will be required to charge customers a refundable deposit for disposable cups starting next year. Single-use utensils, including plastic straws and stirrers, will also be banned.
The use of plastic bags will be prohibited at small retailers and bakeries starting next year, adding to an existing ban at large retail outlets, such as department stores, shopping malls and supermarkets.
The revisions will further ban hotels and accommodation with more than 50 guest rooms from offering disposable products, such as small bottles of shampoo, toothbrushes and razors, to guests, beginning next year.
The plan is a part of the government’s initiative to reduce the use of disposable products by 35 percent or more by 2022.
The government also aims to bring down the ratio of plastic containers in all container products from the current 47 percent to 38 percent by 2025. The thickness of plastic containers for food delivery will also be regulated.
Korea has enforced regulations banning the usage of plastic materials that are difficult to recycle such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and colored polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles for the packaging of food and beverage items.
PET bottles for beverage and mineral water were made colorless since December 2019.
Amendments to the law also bring new regulations for the standard of packaging design and quality, marking and labeling and packaging methods in order to encourage companies to use plastics that are easy to recycle from the production stage.
Packaging products will be evaluated and receive one of four grades: Best for recycling, excellent, normal, or difficult.
The government since this year has applied financial incentives depending on recyclability, and producers that use packaging materials with the “best” grade, such as PET bottles, will receive a discount of up to 50 percent, while those with a “difficult” grade will receive a 20 percent surcharge applied to the unit price, said the Environment Ministry.
The ministry has pushed to monitor each stage of the resource cycle from production, consumption, disposal, collection and separation to recycling as a part of efforts to promote a circular economy, or a system that does not dispose of consumed resources but puts them back into the economy.
The Korea Zero Waste Movement Network launched in 1997, bringing together grassroots environmental organizations.
“Our association has been active from well before there was much public awareness about reducing waste, and has taken part in the forming all the major laws in Korea on this issue,” said Kim. “We have continued to press the government on issues such as single-use cups and bags, sorting food waste and waste disposal policies.”
She pointed out that plastics made using petroleum fossil fuel are contributing to global warming and temperatures climbing, which in turn lead to extreme climate phenomena like droughts, heavy rainfall and heat waves, all experienced on the Korean Peninsula.
Kim said, “We cannot ignore the climate crisis because drastic changes in temperatures and climate could make farming impossible and lead to a global food shortage. And the situation is worse for Korea, a country where only 20 percent is farmland, and the rest of the produce has to be exported.”
Changing corporate and consumer mindset
Major Korean corporations across all sectors are introducing their own plastic waste reduction plans and committing to ambitious ESG (environmental, social and governance) efforts for sustainable growth.
LG Electronics last month set a goal to use some 600,000 metric tons of recycled plastic by 2030 as a part of its effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is a part of the company’s initiative for a take-back ecosystem for electronic waste to increase the use of post-consumer recycled materials in its electronics and home appliance products.
Food company CJ CheilJedang revealed earlier this month it will eliminate plastic trays for its gim (laver) and disposable cutlery for its Bibigo instant porridge, which it said is in response to consumers’ desire to reduce plastic waste.
Some companies are using artificial intelligence technology in a campaign to reduce plastic waste, such as SK Telecom introducing an unmanned reusable cup collecting machine equipped with AI image analysis technology at its headquarters in central Seoul in September.
In June 2020, Lotte Mart announced plans to cut single-use plastic usage by 50 percent by 2025, the first supermarket chain in Asia to make such a commitment.
Starbucks Korea likewise plans to stop using single-use cups in its stores by 2025, the global coffee chain’s first such move globally.
Good intentions, however, sometimes face hiccups, and Starbucks employees last month held a protest over the excessive workload due to an event offering limited-edition reusable plastic cups meant to encourage sustainability.
Food delivery app Baedal Minjok, which has seen a major spike in popularity, has made it an option to opt out of disposable utensils, and just recently also introduced a campaign to cut down on restaurants' unnecessary complementary side dishes, all separately packaged and ending up as more waste.
The zero waste movement is also pushed by local governments, as in the case of Seoul’s Gangbuk District Office, which launched a campaign to encourage office workers in the area to use reusable cups by allocating return areas to collect the used cups to be cleaned and reused.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government introduced this month a project partnering with another delivery app, Yogiyo, to use multi-use containers for food delivery. Around 100 restaurants in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, will take part in the campaign.
Kim pointed out that Japanese civic activists say it is difficult to get corporations to listen and ask her, “How did you get rid of single-use cups in cafes in Korea?”
She told them, “Korean consumers, as they became aware of the need for such regulations despite the inconveniences, told us to demand the government and corporations to respond and call for strong penalties.”
While many companies have good intentions adopting ESGs and promoting eco-friendly products and packaging, Kim said that it is not enough to call it a day after running a good promotional campaign. Instead, she asks corporations to do more research and seek expert advise to confirm if they are really using environmentally-friendly plastic.
“Korea was the first country globally to get rid of single-use cups in cafes, and this has been working very well with strong public participation, though the Covid-19 pandemic has slightly hindered the progress,” said Kim. “Some foreign media outlets questioned how Koreans are able to put up with the 'inconvenience.' But the Korean public generally actively participate in such actions if they think it is the right thing to do, even if it is inconvenient.”
And there is more to be done. The government, she said, can do a better job of defining bioplastic, for a start.
Bioplastic refers to plastic made from plants or other biological material instead of petroleum.
Some companies, she pointed out, describe products despite only being 10 percent plant-based plastic as “bioplastic” and “environmentally friendly.” She said that EU standards define bioplastic as 100 percent plant-based, and Korea needs to come up with a clearer definition as well.
The Environment Ministry is also planning a clearer roadmap by 2023 as a part of its vision to use 100 percent bioplastic by 2050.
Korean environment officials said that they also looked to the EU’s directive on banning 10 single-use plastics introduced in 2019, which came into effect in July, for its clarity and detail.
“The Ministry of Environment intends to overcome previous limitations of a waste-centered management by actively pursuing a circular economy overseeing the entire production, distribution and consumption process,” said resource circulation policy official Kim.
The Environment Ministry referenced the EU directive as inspiration for a recent project with Gangbuk District in northern Seoul to collect cigarette butts and recycle the plastic filters. Some 20 cigarette butt collection boxes will be installed in the district initially, and depending on the success of the pilot project, it could expand nationwide.
Five months have passed since the launch of the plastic-free campaign at Mangwon Market, and the initial enthusiasm has lost some steam.
Six customers dropped by Lee Bok-soo’s banchan shop over the course of the half-hour interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Oct. 10, and only one person actually brought a reusable container.
Lee constantly double checks with customers if they really do need a disposable plastic bag.
“When I check with customers, do you really want a disposable plastic bag, around 90 percent of them reconsider and don’t take it,” he said.
Lee said he has given lectures for Seoul city government and Mapo District Office officials on reducing plastic waste and utilizing reusable containers.
In April, the association of merchants at the market offered a class on reducing plastic waste and how to encourage customers to use multi-use containers without making them feel uncomfortable.
“Vendors didn’t want to participate because they say they are afraid it will affect their sales,” said Lee. “But my effort has not impacted me in selling my dishes, and I’ll do it whether it keeps customers away or not. And look, the campaign has even spread to the next market over.”
Such grassroots efforts are paying off, and more markets, despite being hit especially hard by a drop in customers and tourists because of the Covid-19 pandemic, are catching onto the plastic-free movement.
SGC Solutions, a kitchenware company, also donated 1,000 “glasslock” containers to Mangwon Market in September, which could be exchanged for coupons.
Ms. Oh, a 39-year-old resident of Mapo District, brought a reusable container on her trip to the market.
“I try to bring reusable containers when I can because I know how bad plastic is for the environment,” she said. “I want to do what I can do to cut down on single-use plastic.”
Collecting coupons is a perk, but she said she would have brought containers anyway, to do her part.
“I definitely see more people trying to seek more eco-friendly, sustainable alternatives, using tumblers at cafes, bringing bags for grocery shopping,” Oh said. “But sometimes I forget to pack containers, and it can be a hassle to remember every time. Still, if everybody puts a little bit more effort, I would like to think we can contribute to cutting down on disposable plastic waste for the sake of the future generation.”
Korea Zero Waste Movement Network’s Kim said, “Now is the era of ethical consumers who bring their own reusable containers to shops. It is up to the consumers to demand less packaging from shops and companies and instigate change.”
Kim points out that demanding the public separately sort PET bottles for recycling was initially a difficult task because it is requesting additional time and labor for people to sort their trash. But such policies took root in a relatively short period of time, she said, after the law passed in December 2019, and “in less than a year, sorting waste had settled into a habit.”
She added, “I want to applaud people for bringing their own reusable containers when they buy food and their own tumblers when ordering coffee and hope this becomes a life practice rather than a momentary trend. I see properly sorting waste, reducing plastic and buying recycled products as a personal task and duty, something I hope lasts for life.”
As major companies set ambitious initiatives toward reducing their carbon footprint, smaller business owners and consumers also are making conscientious decisions in changing their lifestyles to reduce waste.
“Why did Korea undergo an independence movement?” asked Lee. “It was for the country and the people. Protecting the environment is the same. It’s for the country and the people. It’s to protect lives.”
“In the past, some shop owners reproached me for discouraging single-use plastic, questioning why I took on such measures by myself,” said Lee. “But even if no one joined, I did it on my own anyway. It’s the same as the independence movement. It started out with a few individuals, and then many more joined in.”
“Nowadays, I have people thanking me for persisting in my efforts to encourage a plastic-free society.”
21st Anniversary Special: REDUCING PLASTIC
But here and elsewhere, it’s a changed world, with a body politic newly concerned with the health of themselves and their loved ones, the vitality of the world’s intertwined economies, and the long-term prospects for the planet itself.
Beyond the human losses, one thing Covid-19 reminded us is that there’s but one world, we’re all a part of it, and our world needs some changes — fast.
In this series of articles celebrating the 21st anniversary of the Korea JoongAng Daily, we focus on changes in two major areas: the energy we use and how to alter our daily lives to help the planet.
The energy sector is responsible for some three quarters of the carbon emissions that are changing our climate and threatening the human race’s viability.
We will look into how the government, power generators, businesses and the public are coming together to change the energy that drives our lives.
And as it’s obvious that all members of society need to take part in this global movement by contemplating changing to their lifestyles — from what they eat to what they buy — we will look at how a waste-free, environmentally conscious mindset is going mainstream in Korea.
We will explore government regulations showing us how to reduce plastic waste; artists’ usage of recycled materials; people opting to go vegetarian; the growing popularity of the minimalist lifestyle; and the rise of that other, rapidly changing world, the metaverse. - Ed.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]