The Korea Herald


Ban on single-use plastics returns

Environment Ministry brings back ban on single-use plastic products at restaurants, cafes

By Im Eun-byel

Published : March 31, 2022 - 15:03

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A worker cleans mugs at a coffee shop in Seoul, Thursday. The ban on the use of single-use cups for in-store customers returned after a two-year hiatus. (Yonhap) A worker cleans mugs at a coffee shop in Seoul, Thursday. The ban on the use of single-use cups for in-store customers returned after a two-year hiatus. (Yonhap)

After a two-year hiatus during the pandemic, Korea has brought back the ban on in-store use of single-use products at food service businesses, causing mixed reactions from employees, customers and environmental activists.

Starting Friday, customers dining in at restaurants, cafes, food stalls, and bars cannot use single-use products, including plastic cups, containers, wooden chopsticks, and toothpicks. The products will only be available for takeout or delivery service customers.

The ban, initially imposed in August 2018, was put on hold for two years to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the first half of 2020. The Environment Ministry, however, has brought the ban back to regulate the soaring amount of plastic waste.

“It will be frustrating for me when customers complain about being unable to use disposable cups,” said Kim So-yeon, who works part time at a coffee shop in central Seoul.

“There were always complaints from customers when it was mandatory to use only reusable cups. Also, we would need more people to wash cups,” Kim said. 

Some are worried the reduced use of single-use products may lead to COVID-19 transmission as the pandemic grinds on. 

“Korea is at its worst crisis in the pandemic. Is this really the right time?” an office worker in his early 30s said. “I understand the need to protect the environment but I am not sure if coffee cups are the real issue.”

Meanwhile, presidential transition committee Chairman Ahn Cheol-soo also expressed skepticism on the ban, saying it should be postponed until after the pandemic.

“It is obvious that there will be quarrels with customers demanding single-use cups out of concern for COVID-19 and business owners trying to persuade customers because of the fines,” Ahn said at a meeting held Monday. “I ask for the authorities to postpone the ban on single-use plastic cups until the COVID-19 situation is resolved.”

Following Ahn’s request, the Environment Ministry announced Wednesday that food service businesses would be exempt from fines until the virus crisis is resolved. However, the regulation will be maintained.

“The regulation will begin from Friday. But it will be for information purposes until the COVID-19 situation is resolved,” the announcement read. “Business will not be fined for violating the regulation and we will work on further guidance.”

With the Environment Ministry taking a step back, environmental activists argue that the ban is necessary.

In a statement issued Thursday, activist group Green Korea expressed doubt that single-use cups were being sought out due to COVID-19 worries. They pointed out that if they were worried about catching the virus from reused cups, then according to that logic, plates and cutlery used for dine-in customers at restaurants should also be disposable.

“The presidential transition committee should try to relieve the worries of customers and business owners, informing them that the use of multiuse products will not lead to a spread of the virus,” the statement read. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency has already announced that the danger of infection through food and containers is “very low.”

Despite the reassurances, customers are still concerned about the inconvenience the ban might bring to their daily lives.

“It is tricky. I am aware that we use too many single-use cups. I have three or four beverages (a day) in summer, which means I am throwing away nearly 20 cups a week,” said Yoon So-hye, an office worker in her 20s.

“But I prefer single-use plastic cups as they are more convenient, compared to using in-store mugs or bringing my own tumbler,” Yoon said. “It’s a dilemma between convenience and the environment.”

The Ministry of Environment is set to go forward with its scheme to reduce single-use products and tighten the regulations within time.

After the COVID-19 situation in Korea improves, businesses that violate the regulation will be fined between 500,000 won ($412) and 2 million won depending on the frequency of the violation and the size of the store. 

From June 10, customers will have to pay a deposit between 200 won and 500 won per disposable cup at coffee shops and fast-food franchises. They can have their deposit back after returning the used cups to the stores for recycling.

The regulations will be further strengthened from Nov. 24 as food service businesses will be prohibited from giving out paper cups, plastic straws and stirrers for dine-in customers.

By Im Eun-byel (