The Korea Herald


Waning commitment? Govt. moves to abandon plan to reduce disposable cups

By No Kyung-min

Published : Sept. 13, 2023 - 16:16

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Single-use cups are stacked and ready for use at a Starbucks coffee shop in Seoul on Sept. 7, 2023. (Yonhap) Single-use cups are stacked and ready for use at a Starbucks coffee shop in Seoul on Sept. 7, 2023. (Yonhap)

The South Korean government appears to be reconsidering its earlier plan to introduce a disposable cup return program by 2025, in spite of the country’s proliferation of cafes and their widespread use of single-use cups.

Designed by the previous Moon Jae-in administration, the deposit-refund system for plastic cups mandates cafe and restaurant owners to impose a surcharge of 300 won ($0.23) on each takeaway cup, eligible for a refund upon return of the used cup.

Ahead of its scheduled nationwide rollout in 2025, the scheme is already in effect on Jeju Island and in the city of Sejong since December last year.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Environment said it was looking into the possibility of devolving the decision-making authority to regional governments, which would allow local governments to decide whether and when to adopt the deposit-refund system for single-use cups. A relevant amendment to the deposit-refund policy was proposed in the National Assembly last month.

Environmental groups say that the move amounts to “irresponsible neglect” on the behalf of the central government of the massive amount of plastic waste coming from people's habit of ordering takeaway beverages here.

“Effective policy implementation by the ministry should precede the adoption of measures by local governments,” Green Korea United said in a statement.

The Korea Federation for Environmental Movements, another civic group, called upon the Environment Ministry to proceed with the nationwide deposit system, saying, “it can be successfully implemented across the nation with the government's commitment.”

Last year, the ministry postponed the implementation of the scheme across the nation, originally slated to take effect in June, due to protests from cafe and restaurant operators.

In Jeju and Sejong, where the deposit-refund program is already in effect, approximately 3.14 million single-use cups have been returned over a nine-month period from December till August this year, ministry data shows.

Last week, the Seoul Metropolitan Government said it would implement the scheme in 2025, as planned.

According to data released by the Environment Ministry, franchise cafes and fast-food restaurants in Korea collectively consumed 4.34 billion disposable cups (comprised of 1.96 billion paper and 2.38 billion plastic cups) during the four-year period from 2017 to 2021. This averages out to approximately 869 million single-use cups per year.

A survey conducted by the Korea National Council of Consumer Organizations also revealed that seven out of 10 people in Korea drink at least one cup of coffee daily, spending an average of 104,000 won per month on coffee purchases.

The country's largest coffee franchise, Starbucks Korea, reported 2.67 trillion won in sales in 2020, according to data from industry tracker WiseApp.