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[Lee Jae-min] Saving us from a deluge of plastics

Use, separate and forget. These three words best describe plastic consumption in Korea. We use plastics a lot; we separate them meticulously; and then we forget.

Korea uses plastic products heavily -- 420 plastic bags per person in 2015, which is six times more than Germany and 100 times more than Finland. Besides, our local governments operate such an efficient system of garbage separation and collection -- residents and households carefully read manuals and sort plastics. And that is pretty much about it. We then forget the rest. We rest complacent that we have done our part. We assume plastic wastes will be recycled and reused, and so they do not create that much of an environmental problem.

The first half of this year taught us about the hidden ugliness of the post-separation lifecycle of plastic wastes in the country. Fact No. 1: only a fraction of plastic wastes are recycled. According to National Geographic, globally only 18 percent of 448 million tons of plastics produced annually are recycled. Korea’s current number stands at 34 percent, higher than average but still a mere one-third. Then what about non-recycled plastic wastes? They are here to stay on Earth. It takes 450 years for plastic bags to biodegrade. And human beings have so far produced 9 billion tons of plastic products since the material’s invention in late 19th century. You do the math to see how much of them are and will be left on Earth.

Fact No. 2: Korea’s plastic wastes are exported to another country for processing. Last year, Korea exported 196,000 tons of plastic wastes to other countries, with the bulk heading to China. These countries are increasingly reluctant to import plastic wastes from other countries due to a valid environmental concern. With foreign routes clogged or closed, Korea now has to process them domestically. Reducing the total amount of wastes is thus critical.

Fact No. 3 is rather scary. It turns out that we are actually eating and drinking plastics. Plastics never dissolve but break. Fragments become tiny bits become ‘microplastics.’ Microplastics then penetrate rivers and oceans, to be eaten by fish and animals. People soon end up drinking contaminated water and eating meat and fish. Every year, says World Economic Forum, 8 million tons of plastics proceed to the ocean.

Prompted by the new awareness of these realities, the government introduced a first-time ever ‘comprehensive’ plastic reduction scheme in the nation. The 2003 banning of free plastic bags was Korea’s first countermeasure against plastics, but its impact has been a drop in the bucket. This time around, more direct action to tackle the plastic situation is being set in motion with target deadlines. By 2020 colored bottles will be replaced with colorless ones at shops. The total plastic usage will be reduced by 50 percent by 2030. This means plastic cups, straws and utensils will be disappearing, by degrees, from shops and homes.

On reflection, Korea has a strong recipe for a plastic addiction. Foreign visitors marvel at the 24-hour-open, around-the-clock eateries and deliveries around the country, which basically run on plastics (remember packages, containers and utensils from every order of ours). Coffee shops at every block and intersection seem to be ready for an endless supply of plastic cups and straws, and buildings at every corner dispense plastic umbrella covers on rainy days. Plastic cups in all colors line up or pile up near waste bins on the streets. We thought garbage separation and collection would do our part of the eco homework, but that is not true. These plastic items are seriously threatening our environment and health. The new policy of the government aims to change this national propensity for plastic reliance. This scheme is timely and well-tuned.

Plastics are convenient and cheap. But the convenience and low-price blind us from seeing their real harm. In a sense, by using plastics carelessly we actually mortgage our future for momentary convenience.

Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.