Single-use cup charge as 'springboard' to reduce plastic waste in pandemic times

Covid-19 has led to an abrupt collapse of waste management chains globally. Countries like South Korea, which are facing the problem of excess waste, need to evaluate their waste management systems.

South Korea Starbucks cafe
South Korea's revised law that will apply to large cafe and food chains will also require these outlets to ban single-use utensils, including spoons and stirrers, while dining in-store. Image: Bundo Kim / Unsplash

This year, South Korea is set to introduce deposits for disposable cups at coffee shops and fast food outlets. The new rule will apply to large and branded cafe chains, which will need to charge their customers a refundable fee for the plastic and paper cups they give out when they sell their beverages. The Ministry of Environment estimates that through boosting recycling and cutting the costs related to waste incineration, the policy will help to reduce carbon emissions by 66 per cent. The revised law will also ban the use of single-use utensils, including plastic straws and stirrers, for customers consuming food and beverages in-store. 

Over the years, major South Korean companies have been moving towards initiating their own plastic waste reduction projects, to achieve environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets. For example, Starbucks South Korea has plans to stop using single-use cups in its stores by 2025. In June 2020, Lotte Mart also announced their plans for cutting single-use plastic by 50 per cent before 2025. This is the first supermarket chain in Asia to make such a commitment, and such moves by corporates should be welcomed. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in plastic waste management becoming unsustainable. Since last year, the use of single-use plastics in South Korea has substantially increased as a result of the pandemic driving the growth of deliveries and takeout services. Ubiquitous plastic pollution has caused both direct and indirect negative effects to human health and the entire ecosystem. 

In 2021, in an article titled “COVID-19’s unsustainable waste management” published in Science journal, my fellow researchers and I pointed out how the coronavirus pandemic has led to an abrupt collapse of waste management chains globally and called for all countries facing excess waste to evaluate their management systems. In our research, we found out that a shift in waste management practices was urgently needed to close the plastic loop. This requires government, researchers and industries to work towards intelligent designs and sustainable systems for recycling. We also emphasised that citizens should be encouraged to go “plastic-free”, which is to try to “refuse, reduce and reuse” whenever they can, especially since inadequate plastic waste management results in an alarming accumulation of plastic in our soil and aquatic ecosystems. 

A comprehensive solution is needed to cut plastic pollution

Voluntary campaigns have no significant effect on driving plastic waste reduction. Appropriate government policies and incentives are needed to stimulate a change in consumer behaviour. Public and educational campaigns on the importance of cutting plastic waste should also be done extensively. 

It is urgent and critical to spotlight sustainable plastic management for a circular economy. To mitigate the production of plastic waste, implementing a scheme that requires local businesses to charge a refundable deposit for single-use cups is an effective springboard to achieve the desired effect. 

South Korea first introduced a similar policy related to the collection of deposits for disposable cups in 2002. Then, the deposit per cup ranged between 50 to 100 won (about US$0.04 to US$0.08). Unfortunately, the plan was scrapped in 2008 due to the lack of legal grounds for companies to collect the deposits and issues related to the management of deposits, which in some cases were not returned to customers. In 2018, the government started to step up on its monitoring of cafes that provide disposable cups without checking whether a customer was dining in or ordering for takeout. Businesses were fined up to 2 million won (US$1680) for breaching the regulation. 

The scheme would be seen as successful if it is no longer needed one day, and people are motivated to bring the cups to the designated collection points even without a mandatory deposit.

Traditionally, deposit refund schemes work when a small refund is provided to consumers when a plastic item is returned to an authorised collection point. There are successful examples. In Europe, 10 countries have implemented deposit refund schemes, with return rates ranging between 82 per cent in Estonia and 98 per cent in Germany. In Germany, where refillable bottles were widely used until the 1990s, the government has instituted a very efficient recycling system.

In 2003, the German government implemented a mandatory deposit scheme, where a €0.25 (US$0.28) deposit was applied to most plastic and glass bottles. Today, this scheme is very successful and customers return about 98.5 per cent of refillable bottles. This is recognised as the highest return percentage in the world. As a result of the scheme, about 1 to 2 billion single-use containers were removed from the bins and streets in Germany. Another good example is Sweden, where 86 per cent of cans and 77 per cent of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic are returned for recycling. The recovery rate in South Australia closely follows Sweden.

However, implementing an effective deposit refund system is a complex process. This system will cover only a small fraction of the waste market and is not a comprehensive solution. South Korea has one of the highest consumption levels for disposable cups in the world. There are many types of plastic pollution that people are not aware of yet. Therefore, identifying plastic pollution hotspots and expanding the monitoring to encompass all ecosystem types will deliver knowledge to support public policy and corporate contributions to the relevant United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs).

Also, the recovery rate is the most important indicator for the first stage of implementation of a deposit refund scheme. Given that the scheme only covers about 35 per cent of cafe and food outlets that have 100 or more outlets now, it will be helpful to extend market coverage, once consumers are accustomed to the scheme. It will, however, take time to turn the current situation around. If consumers are inconvenienced, cafes may see a drop in their business volume, and this would be especially difficult during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a short-term plan, the government should provide incentives to aid businesses to adjust to the scheme. 

From a long-term perspective, the scheme would be seen as successful if it is no longer needed one day, and people are motivated to bring the cups to the designated collection points even if there is no mandatory deposit. 

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