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South Korea scraps disposable plastic bags after waste crisis brought on by China import ban

  • Thousands of discount stores, supermarkets and bakeries nationwide are prohibited from allowing customers to use the throwaway packaging
  • Offending companies will be fined up to US$2,680
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 2:42pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 8:20pm

South Korea on Tuesday enforced a ban on disposable plastic bags in a bid to stamp out non-biodegradable garbage in the world’s second-largest plastic waste producer.

The move follows a plastic waste handling crisis in South Korea last April when China, the world’s largest importer of recyclable material, banned the import of plastic garbage.

Citing financial loss caused by declining plastic waste prices abroad, South Korea’s recycling firms stopped collecting the trash. The stoppage left piles of garbage – such as water bottles and plastic bags – in the streets and depots for weeks. Recyclers resumed work after being promised government subsidies.

The waste crisis underscored the seriousness of the issue, forcing government authorities to come up with more sustainable ways to deal with plastic waste rather than simply exporting the problem abroad.

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From Tuesday, discount stores, supermarkets and bakeries nationwide were prohibited from allowing customers to use disposable plastic bags, the environment ministry said. The move is the result of a revised law on conserve resources and encourage reuse of recyclable waste, the ministry added.

The country’s 2,000 discount chain outlets and 11,000 supermarkets, with sales floor space of 165 square metres or more, will be subject to the ban. Offending companies will be fined up to 3 million won (US$2,680).

Shops are instead required to provide customers with paper bags, multiple-use cloth shopping bags or recyclable containers, which local government authorities sell to raise money for waste disposal. Thin plastic bags for wet food packaging, such as fish and meat, will still be allowed.

The country’s thousands of bakeries, also heavy users of plastic bags, must now charge customers for every plastic bag they use.

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Kim Mi-hwa, secretary general of the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network, welcomed the decision to scrap plastic bag use, but said it could go further.

She said each South Korean produces about 1kg of garbage every day, 40 per cent of that being plastic waste.

South Korea is the world’s second-largest waste producer after Belgium, using 62kg per capita, according to the European Plastic and Rubber Machinery. The Hankyoreh daily newspaper reported that South Koreans use 420 plastic bags every year.

“This will reduce only 10 per cent of plastic bags being consumed,” Kim said, noting the plastics ban does not apply to manufacturers or small market vendors.

While the new law puts a blanket ban on the disposable plastic bag, many major supermarkets, retail chains and bakeries have already taken steps to phase them out, including by charging customers between 50 to 100 won for each bag, or switching to recyclable bags.

Park Min-jung, a 56-year-old housewife, said she makes sure she carries a cloth bag when she shops.

“When I heard I had to pay for the plastic bag for the milk and tofu I bought, I just carried them home in my hands,” she said. “I think the ban is necessary for the environment. We’ve been simply using too many plastic bags,” she said.