Ban on single-use plastics returns

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

Starting Friday, in-store customers 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 take-out or delivery service customers.

The ban, put on hold for two years to prevent the spread of COVID-19 since February 2020, returned.

“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 his skepticism on the ban, saying the ban should be postponed to the post-pandemic times.

“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 COVID-19 situation is resolved.”

Following Ahn’s request, the Environment Ministry announced Wednesday, 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 guidance.”

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

In a statement issued Thursday, activist group Green Korea expressed doubt that single-use cups were being sought out of worries about COVID-19. They pointed out that, if they were worried about catching the virus from re-used cups, it followed that the plates and cutlery in sit-down restaurants would also have to be disposable.

“The presidential transition committee should try to relieve the worries of customers and business owners, informing them that the use of multi-use products will not spread the virus,” the statement read. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency has already announced that the danger of the COVID-19 virus spreading through food and containers is very low.”

Though COVID-19 may not spread through reusable cups, 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 environment.”

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

After the COVID-19 situation in Korea improves, businesses that violate the regulation will be fined between 500,000 won 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.

From Nov. 24, food service businesses will be prohibited from giving out paper cups, plastic straws and stirrers for in-store customers.

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