The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Korea must actively regulate against plastic waste: WWF-Korea chief

By Lee Jung-joo

Published : May 15, 2024 - 14:03

    • Link copied

Park Min-hye, executive director of WWF-Korea, sits for an interview with The Korea Herald at the WWF-Korea Headquarters on May 8. (Lee Jung-joo/The Korea Herald) Park Min-hye, executive director of WWF-Korea, sits for an interview with The Korea Herald at the WWF-Korea Headquarters on May 8. (Lee Jung-joo/The Korea Herald)

As South Korea grapples with a significant surge in plastic pollution, the chief of the world’s largest nongovernmental conservation group's Korean office called for the government here to adopt stricter regulations, calling it an "absolutely necessary" measure.

“Some environmental issues cannot be resolved through voluntary participation, and targeting plastic waste problems is one of them,” World Wide Fund for Nature-Korea's executive director Park Min-hye said in an interview with The Korea Herald at the branch's headquarters in central Seoul on May 8.

“Plastic pollution in South Korea has reached a serious level, and the regulations which can target these problems are now absolutely necessary," she added, pointing to the government’s decision in November last year to retract its decision to ban disposable paper cups, plastic straws and plastic bags in certain venues such as restaurants and cafes.

The Ministry of Environment withdrew its ban on single-use products in such venues only a year after the rules were put in place. The ministry cited its need to cater to the complaints of small business owners, who were experiencing difficulties in not using single-use products, as a key reason behind its decision.

“Koreans are already aware of the problems behind plastic waste and are worried about the impacts of plastic pollution,” said Park, pointing to WWF-Korea’s big data report released in January 2023, which showed that a growing number of Koreans have adopted a negative stance toward the unnecessary use of plastic.

“The government should (consider) public opinion behind plastic waste and strongly regulate against the unnecessary use of plastics," Park noted.

A total of 193 countries around the world, including Korea, are currently working together under the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution, a committee established with the United Nations, to develop an international treaty on plastic pollution by the end of 2024.

The previous and fourth INC session took place on April 23 in Ottawa, Canada, and the fifth and final session is scheduled to be held in Busan from Nov. 25 to Dec. 1 to finalize the international plastic treaty.

“I believe that Korea’s role as the host country of the fifth INC session is extremely important. I've been asked several questions about key points regarding Korea’s environmental policies tackling plastic waste and how Korea is preparing to host the INC session. But nothing special comes to mind at the moment," Park said, reiterating the need for the government to come up with more solid measures.

According to Park, Korea generated up to 390 million metric tons of plastic waste annually as of 2021, which was recorded as the highest production rate at the time.

“Korea produces a lot of plastic but also uses a lot of plastic materials, which leads to high volumes of plastic waste,” said Park. “I believe that this comes with several responsibilities for Korea as well.”

When asked what types of regulations are necessary to tackle plastic pollution, Park responded that a ban on unnecessary plastics is the only way in which plastic pollution can be tackled comprehensively.

“A ban on plastic items for which alternatives exist and don’t harm the product’s functionality is needed, such as cotton pads, cotton swabs and tea bags,” continued Park.

Besides targeting plastic pollution, Park added that a shift in energy policies is also necessary in tackling issues related to the climate crisis.

“Korea is a big emitter of greenhouse gases, as almost 87 percent of the industries that emit greenhouse gases are in the energy sector,” said Park, saying that Korea is far below the average among 38 nations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in terms of renewable energy generation rates.

According to the Environment Ministry, while OECD members’ average renewable energy generation rate is 34 percent and the world average is 14.8 percent, Korea placed itself at 7.7 percent as of 2022.

“It is crucial to switch to renewable energy from greenhouse gases, and to expand the use of renewable energy sources,” the WWF-Korea chief stressed.

While Korea’s progress is slow in addressing environmental issues, it is currently on the right path, as Korea is a member state of the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, according to Park. The coalition, which involves 66 countries, aims to develop a solution in line with the full life cycle of plastics.

“Several papers have been published and numerous international meetings have taken place regarding the actions needed to tackle the climate crisis, so both Korean businesses and the Korean government should know what sort of action must be taken,” stated Park.

“However, they don’t take much action -- citing potential unseen risks or changes in the business environment. But environmental issues can no longer be put on hold to be dealt with later. We must act now before it's too late."

Park Min-hye, executive director of WWF-Korea (Courtesy of WWF-Korea) Park Min-hye, executive director of WWF-Korea (Courtesy of WWF-Korea)

Park Min-hye is the executive director of WWF-Korea and has been in office since January. Park, who is the first executive director in WWF-Korea’s 10-year history to be selected from within the organization, was selected for her in-depth understanding of the organization's goals and her ability to help expand WWF-Korea’s global ties by extending its funds to other countries.