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[Feature] War on single-use plastics faces another setback as virus fears resurge

Environmentalists’ frustration grows as disposable use, coronavirus cases move in tandem

Trash is piled up at a recycling cetner in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. The amount of recyclable waste has sharply risen as Korea struggles to curb a second wave of COVID-19 infections. (Yonhap)
Trash is piled up at a recycling cetner in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. The amount of recyclable waste has sharply risen as Korea struggles to curb a second wave of COVID-19 infections. (Yonhap)
Coronavirus cases have surged again in Korea, and so has the use of single-use plastics.

As the country struggles to curb a second wave of COVID-19 infections, people are buying food and drinks via takeaways or deliveries that come in plastic packaging.

Official data has yet to be compiled, but environmentalists say it is evident that the heightened Level 2 social distancing scheme, imposed nationwide in mid-August and to last until Sept. 20, is boosting waste from disposable packaging.

“The coronavirus outbreak, especially when it got serious again, has provided a good excuse for people to stay indoors and order food, coffee and whatever coming inside plastic containers,” said Hong Su-yeol, head of Resource Recycle Consulting.

In Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, where an even stricter “Level 2.5” distancing was in place from Aug. 16 through Sunday, restaurants were not allowed to serve customers after 9 p.m. except through delivery and takeout. Major coffee chains such as Starbucks could only serve grab-and-go customers, as sitting was not allowed during business hours.

Amid such changes, the total value of orders placed on food delivery apps in South Korea reached 1.2 trillion won ($1 billion) last month, up 28 percent from July and setting a new monthly record, as the government introduced stricter social distancing regulations, according to data released by WiseApp.

The food delivery app companies do not have control over how their partner businesses package their food and beverages. Restaurants and cafes have increasingly chosen to pack items in disposable plastic boxes, as customers worry about catching the virus from dishes someone else has used.

South Korea in February opened up regulatory legroom for restaurants and cafes to reintroduce plastic and paper cups for in-store customers until the virus outbreak is brought under control.

The country already consumed much more plastic in the first half than before from the virus outbreak that had been limiting outdoor activities, data shows. According to the Ministry of Environment, the amount of plastic waste in the first half of the year averaged 850 metric tons a day, up 16 percent from 732 tons a year earlier.

That trend continued in July, data shows.

According to data from Statistics Korea, the value of online transactions reached near 13 trillion won in July, the largest-ever amount since monthly data has been compiled. The record increase was backed by a surge in demand for food and beverage items, the agency said. Most food and beverage items delivered through online platforms come in plastic packaging.

It has also been forecast for the amount of plastic use in the second half to surpass that of the first half if the country fails to control the number of new cases and hikes the social distancing scheme to Level 3.

“Every cup of coffee we sell is sold in a plastic cup,” said a non-franchise cafe owner in Gangnam, southern Seoul, whose coffee shop is still allowed to have customers inside. “I don’t even try to offer mugs or other reusable options. I’m scared of the virus, and (customers) must be scared, too.”

Eco-minded citizens and activists express frustration that the country’s war on plastics now appears tied to the coronavirus situation.

“This phenomenon of preferring delivery and takeout is prompting people to use more plastic waste, and sadly enough, there’s not much we can do with the change itself,” said Green Korea activist Heo Seung-eun, who agrees that controlling the virus should be prioritized.

“But what companies and people can do is continuing that phenomenon with less plastic, using reusable packages and try to run businesses with less plastic.”

Hong from Resource Recycle Consulting suggests delivery app services and the business sector work together to promote a new business model that can support the use of multiuse containers. The key is to ensure no additional burden goes to individual restaurant and food service operators.

“There should be a business-side incentive for food and beverage businesses to prefer multiuse containers,” Hong added. “Just forcing businesses to do it without any advantage from doing so would end as a failure.”

Environment activists are also asking the government to adopt a longer-term perspective and provide support for entities with sustainable ideas to contain the virus. If such leeway remains open, the country would never be close to the set of environmental goals it pronounced, they claim.

The government had set its sights on cutting plastic waste in half by 2030 while increasing the recycling rate to 70 percent, from just 34 percent in 2018. It was looking to phase out colored plastic bottles and replace them with clear plastic this year, as colored plastic is harder to recycle.

“This coronavirus outbreak may not be the last virus outbreak we will have to go through in the future, and we can’t afford to throw in these large amounts of plastic every time,” Heo added.

“There needs to be a system where businesses and people are supported to divert to eco-friendly ways and strictly follow virus guidelines at the same time.”

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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