CHEAP, DURABLE, and disposable─these qualities have made plastic an indispensable component of modern day products. Yet the very durability of this wonder-material that makes it so attractive is causing enormous damage to our environment. To combat this, The Seoul Metropolitan Government has proposed a new battle plan against plastic waste─but will it be effective?
The landfill crisis: domestic politics of plastic waste
The issue of plastic waste disposal has provoked heated political controversy in South Korea, especially at the metropolitan level. There are currently three ways to dispose of waste on land: recycling, burning, or burying. However, given the immense amount of waste produced every day, these methods are far from perfect.
Kim Tae-hee (Director of Business Affairs, Korea Zero Waste Movement Network*) explains why plastic waste disposal is particularly problematic. “Recycling is not an economically viable option for plastic, unlike other products such as tin and glass,” says Kim. Since most plastic products have low density and are full of air, they use more energy to store and transport than they save by being recycled. Moreover, plastic packaging is often contaminated with food and drinks, incurring extra cost during processing. “Burning plastic on the other hand produces toxic gas, and plastics buried in landfills simply do not disappear for hundreds of years,” Kim explains.
According to Kim, the recent proposal by the Seoul Metropolitan Government to tackle the problem of plastic waste was partly initiated by the 2015 crisis of the Su-do-kwon Landfill Site** located in the city of Incheon. The contract between the city of Seoul, Gyeonggi province, and the city of Incheon regarding the usage of the Su-do-kwon Landfill Site was due to expire in 2016. However, because of South Korea’s effective recycling system, unused zones still remain in the landfill site. Since creating a new landfill site is both politically and economically burdensome for the city of Seoul, its interest lies in extending the use of the existing landfill site for as long as possible. On the other hand, the city of Incheon wishes to exploit the huge area in other potential ways, especially in the backdrop of its local population’s discontent.
After a series of fierce political drama and negotiations between Seoul, Gyeonggi, Incheon, and the Ministry of Environment, the parties agreed in June 2015 to extend the use of the landfill site until 2024. The contract may even be extended until 2032, according to the clause that allows further use of the landfill site (up to 15% of the remaining area) in the case that the metropolitan governments fail to develop an alternative landfill site. Albeit a short-term solution, the city of Seoul wishes to elongate the use of the Su-do-kwon Landfill Site by decelerating the speed at which the area is used up.
The 2015 landfill crisis reveals that the agenda of waste compilation in South Korea attracts significant attention in domestic politics due to its direct socioeconomic implications. South Korea’s limited land area renders animated discourse indispensable for the country’s policymakers. So what exactly is the Seoul Metropolitan Government doing to tackle the problem of waste compilation?
Dear citizens, stop using plastic!
“Our citizens should make efforts to reduce plastic waste in their daily lives, for example by replacing plastic bags with reusable shopping bags,” stated Jung Gwang-hyun (Air Quality Coordination Bureau, Seoul Metropolitan Government) in the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s press release last September. In response to the problem of plastic waste compilation, the Seoul Metropolitan Government proposed to tackle the most “fundamental cause” of the problem: we are consuming too much plastic.
“Seoul alone produces 9,500 tons of waste every day,” says Choi Gyu-dong (Team Leader, Resource Recirculation Div., Seoul Metropolitan Government). The metropolitan government’s Resource Recirculation Division is responsible for the management of the city’s waste. “Of all kinds of waste, we are particularly interested in reducing plastic waste, because 17% of the waste that ends up in landfill sites constitutes of plastic bags,” he explains.
“An average of 420 plastic bags per person are consumed annually in South Korea. This figure is six times the number of plastic bags used in Germany,” Choi continues. Although South Korean shops have been prohibited from distributing free plastic bags to its customers since 2003, statistics show that the policy has failed to inhibit the growing consumption of plastic bags (see graph).
This failure perhaps indicates the need for stricter monitoring, just as the Seoul Metropolitan Government itself proposes. Some also question whether the current tax burden on plastic bags is enough to discourage consumers from using them. The price of plastic bags has remained stagnant for 14 years, since the effectuation of the policy in 2003. “South Korean consumers pay around 110 to 150 for a plastic bag. This is a significantly lower cost than what consumers pay in more environmentally friendly countries like Germany,” comments Kim from Korea Zero Waste Movement.
“In Germany, big plastic bags cost about €0.20, which is around 1,270,” tells Nele Jobmann (Soph., UIC, Political Science and International Relations) from Germany. “We are constantly encouraged to switch to reusable bags which are made available at the register,” Jobmann explains. “It is also common for grocery stores to give out paper bags which are of course also better for the environment than plastic ones.”
Besides its determination to crack down on illegitimate free plastic bag supplies in shops, the Seoul Metropolitan Government proposes to coordinate with the central government to revise the existing policies on waste production. It also plans to organize task forces with its citizens for stricter monitoring of the local shops. The metropolitan government stresses the need for active citizen participation in its battle against plastic: “besides good policy-making, public awareness definitely has a big influence on a country’s capability to reduce plastic usage,” Choi remarks.
A scientific problem needs a scientific solution
The government’s grandiose 3-year blueprint for plastic waste reduction in Seoul calls for scrutiny. Will stricter regulations and more public campaigns really yield a safer and cleaner plastic-free city?
Skeptics question whether the problem of compiling plastic waste can be solved by policymakers alone. “Governmental restrictions are not the solution to the problem; the real solution is to make better plastics,” asserts Milan Balaz (Associate Prof., UIC, Integrated Science and Engineering Div.), an expert on organic chemistry and synthetic materials. Professor Balaz doubts that tighter regulations on plastic usage will ever free the city from its plastic waste.
“Regulations make it seem like the problem can simply be eliminated with a single policy decision. For example, Hawaii completely bans the use of thin plastic bags. But even if you were to impose an outright ban on plastic bags, the plastic will simply flow in from less environmentally conscious countries to your lands, and you will end up with as much garbage as you had before,” Professor Balaz points out. He argues that such policy measures are simply a way of “avoiding the problem,” rather than “solving the problem.”
Instead, he emphasizes that “solutions to scientific problems need to be scientific.” For Professor Balaz, the problem of waste compilation is specifically a “scientific” one, since plastic is a man-made material. “Plastic is a polymer, meaning that it is a huge linear chain of molecules. It is too long and hydrophobic*** for it to be a ‘nature-like’ material. Microorganisms in our soils will eventually break them (with the help of light and oxygen), but it will take hundreds of years,” Professor Balaz explains.
Accordingly, a “scientific” solution must be sought for by the means of rigorous scientific research. “There are two things we can do to find a solution for the future,” suggests Professor Balaz. “We can push the existing research on plastic further to find naturally occurring microorganisms that will break down our plastic waste efficiently. There have already been some findings of microorganisms that can actually digest polyethylene, the most common type of plastic used today,” he explains.
“An even simpler solution,” he continues, “is to discover new biodegradable plastic that can match the properties and approach the cost of the plastic we are using currently.” That the solution is “simpler” of course, does neither render it the easiest nor the cheapest task. It requires ample scientific research buttressed by sufficient monetary funding in forms of research grants, scholarships, and support for new, non-traditional majors that can attract and train excellent students to become truly interdisciplinary thinkers.
“This is precisely how the government and universities can use their power of resource distribution to tackle the problem of plastic waste disposal,” Professor Balaz comments. “We can solve the problem only if we find the right solutions. The battle against plastic waste can start right here at Yonsei University – think globally, act locally.”
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The complexities of the issue of plastic waste disposal underscore the urgent need for a productive dialogue between our society’s policymakers and scientists. Devising innovative and effective solutions requires motivation and perseverance, both on part of administrators and researchers. Only in this way will our battle against plastic waste be victorious.
*Korea Zero Waste Movement Network: A nation-wide network of 180 activist groups that advocate for reducing waste production in South Korea
***Su-do-kwon* Landfill Site: A landfill site located in the city of Incheon wherein the waste produced in the city of Seoul, Incheon, and Geyong-gi province is buried; “Su-do-kwon” translates into “metropolitan area” in English.
***Hydrophobic: An Ancient Greek term for “having a horror for water”; hydrophobic molecules do not dissolve well in water.