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[Editorial] Policy reversal on paper cups

Government scraps plan to ban use of single-use products, sparking criticism

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 10, 2023 - 05:30

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When the government announced last year it would ban the use of paper cups and other single-use products at restaurants and cafes, there were mixed reactions. Proponents welcomed the eco-friendly move while opponents complained of inconveniences and extra costs.

On Tuesday, the government abruptly scrapped the plan that a year prior had sparked different responses from consumers, shop owners and civic groups about its pros and cons. This time, however, people are saying the U-turn was motivated by political considerations: The Yoon Suk Yeol government and ruling People Power Party have ditched the environmentally friendly policy in a bid to secure votes from business owners in the general election in April next year.

There is no question that regulating single-use products such as paper cups, plastic bags and straws in favor of recyclable alternatives will help preserve the environment and contribute to global efforts to combat climate change.

The South Korean government, at least officially, aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, while enforcing a wide range of eco-friendly policies, such as waste segregation, designed to facilitate recycling across the nation. Some franchise cafes and restaurants voluntarily encourage consumers to reduce waste by using their own tumblers and eco-friendly shopping bags.

On Nov. 24 of last year, the government included paper cups, plastic straws and plastic stirrers to the list of prohibited single-use items. Violations could lead to a fine of up to 3 million won ($2,300). But the government gave a yearlong grace period so that businesses and consumers could adapt to the new regulations.

With the grace period drawing to an end, however, the government has now decided not to enforce its regulations on paper cups and other single-use items all of a sudden.

“There is a limitation in bringing about change through regulations and enforcement,” said Vice Environment Minister Lim Sang-jun in a press briefing Tuesday. “The government has taken into account the burden on small businesses struggling with high inflation and high interest rates.”

The Ministry of Environment said banning paper cups at restaurants and cafes could place extra cost on businesses since they have to hire new staff to wash cups. The plan to restrict the use of plastic straws was also tossed away since its alternatives -- paper straws -- are 2.5 times more expensive.

The reasons cited by the ministry may sound convincing, especially from the perspective of restaurant and cafe owners, many of whom find it hard to navigate through soaring costs and sluggish domestic consumption.

Critics repeatedly warned of such side effects when the government drew up an initial policy plan to ban single-use items in November 2019, revised the enforcement rules in 2021 and introduced the grace period last year.

The government, in all fairness, was supposed to come up with proper measures aimed at minimizing side effects and offering incentives, while persuading stakeholders to recognize the need for implementing environment-friendly policies.

Over the past years, however, both the previous and current administrations failed to generate breakthrough measures, which eventually led to Tuesday’s announcement to indefinitely postpone the enforcement of the ban. It is also a disappointing policy decision for the restaurants and cafes that have already secured reuse facilities and recruited additional employees in preparation for the planned ban of single-use items.

The government’s turnaround also invites criticism from political pundits, who say the latest move is a thinly veiled gesture to win the hearts of small businesses in advance for the general election.

Greenpeace Korea criticized the government’s reversal of its policy on single-use paper cups, saying it put priority on short-term financial issues over long-term sustainability goals. The global trend is clearly moving to phase out disposable cups and other single-use products. The European Union banned the use of single-use plastics in July 2021, New Zealand introduced the same policy in July this year and Vietnam plans to restrict plastic straws at hotels and resorts from 2025.

It is regrettable that the Yoon administration is going against the tide with a short-sighted policy reversal, ignoring the basic principle that measures for the environment should be consistently implemented with a long-term vision.