Photo: Paper straw factory is shuttered after the Environment Ministry announcement. Credit: Herald Economy.
On November 7, the Ministry of Environment 환경부 announced that it would indefinitely extend the provisional period for paper cups, plastic bags and plastic straws. Although the Environment Ministry had been planning to phase out these disposable products since 2019, the new announcement all but scraps the four years of planning.
The announcement was framed as a measure aimed at bringing relief to small businesses trudging through the soft economy ahead of April 2024’s legislative election. Practically speaking, however, the abrupt change only adds to the existing confusion. In addition to the national government’s policy, certain local governments - including the city of Seoul - have their own initiatives for phasing out disposable products. The abrupt reversal also comes as a disaster for producers of alternative products like paper straws and biodegradable cups, some of whom have had to shut down entirely.
Even while claiming that it remains committed to reducing plastic waste, the Environment Ministry gave no specific alternative plan for the reduction. The sudden walk-back may prove problematic, as South Korea is in negotiations to sign onto the United Nations treaty on reducing plastic waste by the end of 2024.