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[News Focus] Plastic waste crisis thwarts Korea’s efforts towards greener future

Korea’s progress towards a cleaner environment is being pushed back by the surge in plastic waste fanned by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the pandemic pushing people to buy food and drinks via takeaway or deliveries that come in plastic packaging, the amount of waste has surged, causing concerns the changes in consumption trend could permanently damage Korea’s green initiatives and disrupt people’s everyday lives.

According to the Ministry of Environment, the number of food deliveries last year skyrocketed 75.1 percent from a year earlier, and the number of overall deliveries surged 19.8 percent on-year.

Virus-wary citizens and nationwide social distancing measures meant an increasing number of people have used delivery services for meals, raising the demand for plastic packaging, the ministry said.

Even while dining in at restaurants, the fear of catching the virus from reusing utensils have pushed customers to opt for single-use utensils, while some eateries and cafes have also chosen to serve their products in disposable plastic boxes as a precaution.

As a result, the amount of plastic waste collected per day reached 8.53 million metric tons last year, up 14.6 percent from the daily average of 7.44 million tons a year earlier.

The amount of medical waste has also ballooned on the back of rising demand for medical services, ministry data showed. Face masks, needles and protective suits have been in high demand as Korea launched extensive virus control measures during the pandemic.

Throughout 2020, Korea collected 7,517 tons of medical waste, nearly 30 times more than the 257 tons of medical waste produced during the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2015.

The trend is alarming, experts say, as the buildup of plastic waste is already causing serious overload on local recycling centers and could cause major disruptions to Korea’s trash management system.

“The amount of plastic waste continues to surge, and these recycling centers have more work than ever, and while that may seem like a good news, it’s quite the opposite,” said Hong Su-yeol, head of Resource Recycle Consulting.

“They are faced with more plastic to process, but fewer places to sell. The price for recycled plastic is also on a downturn.”

An increase in the amount of collected waste would normally translate into greater profits for recycling facilities, but Hong said the demand for recycled plastic has fallen in general, making the industry less economically viable.

The deadly virus has also crippled the export market for used plastic, adding on to industry woes stemming from a recent legal amendment that came into effect on Jan. 1.

New amendments to the Basel Convention, an international waste treaty signed by 188 countries including Korea, means exporting used plastic made with mixed materials now requires a more complicated approval process.

Korea has already been struggling with the stalled trade in plastic recycling, as the deadly virus paralyzed major markets around the world with lockdowns, border closures, and port and transport restrictions.

Many countries implemented their own plastic import restrictions in response to their own plastic waste crises that arose from COVID-19 pandemic.

Activists say those difficulties recycling centers are facing would lead to significant delays in waste processing, which means piles of trash could stay on the street for longer, taking away the convenience that people have taken for granted.

“Just a week-long delay in waste collection can cause significant problems for people; you continue to have trash to take out but there’s no one to take it,” said Green Korea activist Heo Seung-eun.

“People aren’t so aware of this problem right now because their trash is still taken care of, but it is a looming challenge that must be tackled not only for the environment but also for their own convenience.”

Experts and activists are more worried that the pandemic-induced U-turn in habits would become permanent, and eventually hamper Korea’s progress towards a greener economy.

The government announced in 2018 that it will cut the amount of plastic waste by 50 percent by 2030 and raise the recycling rate from 34 percent to 70 percent. It was also looking to phase out colored plastic bottles and replace them with clear plastic while promoting the use of renewable materials.

Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has stymied such goals.

South Korea in February last year 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.

That has allowed people to continue using plastic containers with no moral guilt, Heo said. While controlling the virus must be prioritized, sustainable ways to tackle both problems must be sought to stop further setback against reaching a greener society.

“Thankfully, media attention towards this plastic waste problem has caused some behavioral changes among people, and that’s a good sign,” Heo said. “We need this problem to be tackled with or without COVID-19 to achieve sustainable environment for the global population.”

Hong from Resource Recycle Consulting urged the business sector and the government to work together in promoting new infrastructures that can support the use of multiuse containers and give real-life reasons for people to stay eco-minded.

“Using multi-use containers and not using single-use plastic should be more convenient and financially beneficial,” Hong said. “An ecosystem is needed to promote this kind of behavior.”

By Ko Jun-tae (