DURING THIS summer vacation, I had a part-time job at a café franchise specializing in milk tea. Throughout my daily six-hour shift, I received more than 100 orders and all drinks were served to the customers in disposable items. Drinks were poured into disposable cups, the tops were sealed with vinyl, the cups were then put into paper holders and served to the customers in plastic bags with straws. However, on the first day of August, a lengthy instruction came from the headquarters. It read that from the next day onwards, customers staying at the café must be given their drinks in reusable cups; otherwise, the café would be fined by the government*. Moreover, it became an obligation to invite customers to make frequent use of their tumblers.
South Korea is undergoing sudden and rapid changes in its environmental regulations, including the ban of disposable cups in cafés since August. In May, the Ministry of Environment announced its aims to halve the nationwide use of plastics by 2030, following China’s April announcement to cease the imports of solid waste from foreign countries**. On September 19, the Seoul Metropolitan Government heralded its pledge to make Seoul a “plastic-free” city, with aims to reduce the usage of plastic by 50% and increase the recycling rate by 70% by 2022***. A part of the plan includes the restriction of five main disposable products: cups, straws, plastic bags, delivery items, and vinyl.
Witnessing numerous customers demanding to stay inside the café while holding plastic disposable cups, I was skeptical whether the concept of waste reduction can be voluntarily implemented by the citizens. More importantly, how would ordinary citizens go about reducing their daily waste? To find out the answer, I decided to implement these policies in real life by taking on the challenge: here is an account of how I stopped using disposable products for ten days.
My daily life was filled with more rubbish than I thought
On the first day, I simply starved. Before this challenge, my usual mornings began with making a cup of instant coffee. On days when I was rushing to lectures, I would grab a disposable paper cup, pour two bags of instant coffee, add hot water, stir with a plastic stick, and speed-walk to lecture halls. However, due to my newly-adopted “disposable-free” lifestyle, I could not afford such an extravagant morning—the process of having one cup of coffee would result in an excessive load of trash. Lacking my usual caffeine intake, I felt lost the entire morning.
For lunch, I went to the dormitory’s convenience store—out of habit—only to find out that there was nothing I could eat if I were to refrain from producing disposable waste. Processed foods were packed in vinyl, breads sealed in plastic bags and fruits in plastic containers. I had to turn my course around to the school cafeteria to have lunch. After the meal, I would have drunk water from either the water purifiers or the vending machine, if it were for my usual disposables-ridden routine. However, drinking from the water purifiers entailed the use of paper cups, and drinking from the vending machine was impossible without buying a drink in a plastic package or a can. As an alternative, I had to return to my dorm room, wash a reusable bottle that my mother had sent me a while back, and fill that up from the water purifier to finally have a sip of water.
At night, I have a habit of taking a walk around the campus with a bottle of beer. But this time, I reluctantly abstained from buying one as colored bottles cannot be recycled as easily as non-colored bottles. Despite several hardships, the first day of my “no-disposables” challenge appeared to be going well—that is, only—up until I received a message that announced the arrival of a pair of shoes I had ordered online a few days prior. The shoes were wrapped among a number of packaging paper. I was struck by the amount of rubbish that I unconsciously produce on a daily basis. At the same time, I began to question why our consumption “inevitably” results in the use of disposables.
Disposable items are in every corner of our life
The average South Korean produces 929.9 grams of domestic waste per day, according to a statement published by the Ministry of Environment in 2018. 27% are thrown away in standard plastic garbage bags; 40% are disposed in the form of food wastes, and 33% as recyclable wastes. A big portion of the waste comes from plastics: South Korea is the biggest consumer of plastics in the world, with an average person using 98.2 kilograms of plastics annually. This is 0.5 kilograms more than the second biggest consumer, the United States. Such usage contributes to South Korea disposing 6,392 tons of plastic waste per day and 216 billion plastic bags annually, according to a report published by Statistics Korea in 2016. These figures appear surreal. Where are all these wastes, especially disposable items, coming from?
Trying to emulate the consumption patterns of an average South Korean who is not confined to the campus dormitory, I entertained the assumption that they would buy food from big supermarkets. Therefore, I visited a franchise supermarket, Home-Plus, where I encountered an unforeseen hardship: the grocery section was full of disposable products. Fruits, such as melons, were separately covered in polystyrene packages that cannot be recycled. Vinyl was used to wrap each cucumber. Buying sweet potatoes required me to put them into a plastic bag, weigh them on a scale and attach a price tag. Without properly separating the price tag from the plastic bag and removing the traces of soil, plastic bags cannot be recycled. Ironically, there were small signs that recommended the customers to use less plastic bags; I doubted whether this is a choice that consumers truly have in such supermarkets.
Another noticeable problem was the abundance of items packaged for one person. “Single-sumer” is a newly coined word in South Korea. It is a portmanteau of “single” and “consumer” and refers to a single household that has the tendency to select smaller-sized items and enjoy packaged foods or delivery foods****. According to Statistics Korea’s 2017 report, 28.6% of the South Korean population is composed of single households. Following the trend, supermarkets are selling single-serve packs. Vegetables that are usually sold as a whole are now cut smaller, packaged into disposable containers, and sold to single households under a marketable theme such as “convenient cabbage” or “single-use garlic.” This trend results in the extra use of disposable items.
Moving onto the liquor section, I came across numerous stacks of liquor, especially imported foreign beers. Since beer bottles are made from glass, people may think that they can be recycled; unfortunately, that is not the case. For bottles to be recycled and reused, their components need to be clearly known. However, the materials used in the manufacture of foreign bottles are hard to trace, so beer bottles are disposed just as any other disposables would be. Despite its huge range of products, I had to leave empty-handed from the supermarket.
The Ministry of Environment published a report in 2018 stating that 40% of domestic waste comes from packaging wastes, of which goods made from plastic materials make up a substantial percentage. Walking around the supermarket, I could better understand why so much waste is produced annually. Although disposables are made for the purpose of a single use, the problem lies in their durability after being thrown away. The United Nations Environment Programme explained that 80% of the waste at sea comes from mainland; this waste harms food chains at sea and plastic waste alone contributes to the deaths of a million sea birds and 0.1 million sea turtles every year. Humans are no exceptions to the damage: according to the Ministry of Environment, micro-plastic (plastic smaller than 5mm) and microbeads (plastic smaller than 1mm) that cannot be filtered through purifiers can be present in drinking water.
Barriers to my environmentally-friendly life
Before the start of the challenge, I simply thought that a high consumption of disposables and a relatively low recycling rate were the faults of the consumers. However, during this challenge, I realized that there are larger impediments that obstruct the proper use of disposables and recycles. One such impediment is excess packaging, a trait that is notable in delivery items and packaged goods in supermarkets. A law which states that the actual product must comprise 65%~90% of the whole packaging is already in effect in Korea. However, such law has proven to be ineffective, as repercussions that result from its violation appears to inflict only minimal damage on the conglomerates. They are subject to only a negligible fine of \1 million ($875 as of October 10) on average. For the excessive packaging of delivery goods, there is currently no law that restricts such practice. Therefore, it appears that our consumption inevitably entails the use of disposables.
In addition, there are barriers to the practice of proper recycling. For one, there are not enough trash cans on the street. Ever since the standard plastic garbage bag was introduced throughout South Korea in 1995, the number of trash cans on the street has continuously declined. For instance, Hwaseong-si removed all trash cans on the street, except for those placed near bus stations*****. Frequent protests from citizens to city ministries concerning the foul odor and unpleasant scenery are the reasons for such removal. Due to the reductions, citizens are forced to carry their rubbish all the way to the inside of buildings where trash cans are present such as home or workforce, and many often end up throwing it away on the street. Moreover, the separation of trash in different types of public trash cans does not serve the purpose of recycling. Therefore, even if the trash is collected in one place, it cannot be recycled easily.
Re-thinking the speed of our life
One lesson I acquired from this challenge is that simply ceasing the consumption of materials is not sustainable. It was time for me to take an environmentally-friendly action to fundamentally change my way of life. On the first big day, preparations to go out took longer than usual. I had to fill a reusable bottle with water, wash a tumbler and a container and put them all in a big eco-bag. These were alternatives for my usual items: a plastic water bottle from a vending machine, and a small bag that can only contain a wallet and a phone. To fulfill the desire for sugar, I decided to visit a macaron shop. Most macaron shops pack the macarons in vinyl or a paper bag, and put the package in a plastic bag for customers who want to buy items to take away. Thus, I brought a container from home and asked the owner to put the macarons in there. Afterwards, I went to Starbucks for a cup of americano. Bringing my own tumbler, I received a discount of \300. Although my bag was heavier, and I spent more time preparing for my day out, I no longer used any disposable products that I otherwise would have.
I implemented other small changes too. Instead of doing online shopping, I went to department stores to buy clothes and put them in my bag instead of disposable bags. Whenever visiting convenience stores, I did not turn to pre-packaged and waste-inducing snacks. In fact, I quit the habit of consistently eating snacks; there was an added bonus of a reduction in my sugar intake. Whenever my friends were trying to order delivery foods, I suggested riding bicycles to the restaurants so that we could reduce disposables.
If using disposable items is unavoidable, we should try to counteract their harmful effects on the environment through recycling. The Ministry of Environment said that among the domestic wastes disposed in standard plastic garbage bags, 53.7% could have been recycled had it been separated properly. The current recycling rate remains at 34%****** because many wastes are contaminated or not separated properly. Four key rules regarding recycling are: empty, wash, remove and separate. Specific rules depending on the materials can be found in the diagram, “How to Recycle Domestic Garbage.”
Instead of visiting big franchise supermarkets for grocery shopping, try visiting traditional markets. Bring containers in advance and ask the sellers to put the food there. Another alternative is visiting “The Picker,” the first store in South Korea to attempt “zero-waste” selling; it has adopted package-free shopping and plastic-free delivery. Customers buy groceries using containers that they bring from home and other items for sale are all environmentally-friendly, reusable products.
Gradually changing lifestyle
This ten-day challenge was not easy. I was tempted to order a fried-chicken while doing group work, wanted to order clothes from online shopping malls, and often found it troublesome to wash my tumbler and water bottle. However, resisting the temptations became more habitual as the days went by. Now, hopeful changes have been brought about to my life. My mornings now begin with making coffee in a tumbler using a stainless spoon. I carry a water bottle everywhere I go. If I need to inevitably order delivery foods, I ask the restaurant owners to not bring disposable spoons and forks, so that I can use my own. However, placing the burden solely on the individual citizen’s shoulders—to completely eliminate the use of disposables or fully recycle—to maximum effect is unrealistic, as the responsibility also falls on companies and the government. Achieving the goal of being “plastic-free” has to be the joint effort of individual awareness, effective government regulations, and ethical corporate decisions.
*Resource Recycling Law
**Korea Joongang Daily
**** Naver Korean Dictionary
******Energy & Environment News