South Korean consumers are forcing companies to rethink plastic use

Hur Ji-hyun, a 41-year-old upcycling designer in Seoul, is a big fan of soymilk. But the eco-conscious South Korean was always troubled by the fact that every packet of her favorite brand came with a plastic straw, which she never used.

So, two years ago, she returned a package of straws to the soymilk producer, along with a letter pointing out that many consumers did not need the straws. As she shared her story on social media, many like-minded consumers followed in her footsteps, forcing the country’s two major milk and soymilk producers – Maeil Dairies and Namyang Dairy Products – to rethink packaging. without straws for some products.

“A lot of people think their individual voice or action won’t make a difference, but it does,” says Hur. “We can easily unite thanks to the Internet and social networks.”

As its history shows, the so-called “zero waste” movement is gaining momentum in South Korea as young consumers and environmental activists pressure companies to reduce plastics as part of their transition to a greener economy.

Their growing enthusiasm for green living recently propelled the country to the top of the “green society” category in the 2022 Green Future Index, a ranking compiled by MIT Technology Review, a media company affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A high score means the community is embracing sustainability through actions such as recycling, ensuring buildings are environmentally friendly, and consuming less meat and dairy.

South Korea has one of the highest per capita plastic consumption rates in the world. But it also has well-developed waste collection and recycling services, with a recycling rate that reached 68% last year, according to consultancy firm Frost & Sullivan.

In the face of consumer pressure to introduce more green policies, the government announced a plan in 2020 to reduce plastic waste by 20% by 2025.

It is also expanding its Extended Producer Responsibility program, which requires companies to eliminate plastic waste from their products. The program has prompted about a dozen bottled water producers, including top-selling brands such as Nongshim and Lotte Chilsung, to sell their water without a label so the bottles are easier to recycle.

Workers sort plastic waste at the Yongin Recycling Center in Yongin, South Korea


Additionally, Asia’s largest cafe economy – as South Korea is sometimes dubbed – will require cafes to charge a refundable deposit for disposable cups from December, after banning the use of plastic cups for restaurant customers in 2018. “This will be our first step to upgrade our waste management system that other countries can compare to,” says Hong Su-yeol, who runs Resource Recycle Consulting – and is better known as name “Dr Waste” in South Korea.

According to Hong, consumer environmental awareness has risen sharply since a 2018 Chinese waste import ban forced South Korea to manage large volumes of plastic waste at home. “It was a wake-up call for many people and sparked a grassroots movement against plastic waste,” he says.

A woman sits inside a South Korean cafe

South Korea is set to introduce the world’s first mandatory deposit system for disposable coffee cups © Chung Sung-Jun/Getty

This has resulted in many “small victories” against consumer goods companies. Hur, for example, repeated its soymilk tactic with food company CJ CheilJedang, forcing it to remove plastic caps from some of its ham products designed for traditional festivals.

Similarly, Brita Korea became the German company’s first Asian subsidiary to collect water filters for recycling after consumers sent hundreds back to the company.

Activists have also targeted cosmetics makers, including AmorePacific, whose representatives last year pledged – following a protest outside its Seoul headquarters – that they would work to remove non-recyclable packaging from cosmetics. ‘ by 2030. Meanwhile, Starbucks Korea announced last year that it will make every store plastic-free by 2025 – the chain’s first such initiative.

Another sign of consumers’ growing eco-consciousness is the nationwide proliferation of zero-waste stores, where customers bring their own containers for products ranging from shampoo and detergent to olive oil and coffee beans.

Ko Kum-sook, who runs one of Seoul’s 200 zero-waste stores, says about 80 percent of her customers are women in their 20s and 30s. “They are the generation most interested in ethical consumption while Korean society, in general, is still focused on economic efficiency.”

A recent survey by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry found that 65% of South Korean millennials and Generation Z – born, respectively, between the early 1980s and mid-1990s, and the mid 1990s and early 2010s – are more concerned with ethics. consumption than the price. This contrasts with the previous generation’s preoccupation with price.

But this eco-consciousness seems to have limits. Plastic use has increased during the pandemic as people have turned to online shopping and takeout. And, while some progress has been made on the retail front, South Korea’s export-driven economy remains largely dependent on heavy industry and carbon-intensive manufacturing.

“People are not discussing fundamental solutions such as accelerating industrial restructuring or expanding renewable energy production, [because they are] concerned about the huge cost of transition and potential job losses,” says Ko. “No one wants to endure the pain.”

Activists warn that the country still has a long way to go to reach its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. They warn that while the campaign to reduce the use of plastics helps reduce gas emissions to greenhouse effect is a drop in the ocean in the fight against climate change.

They also fear that the country’s new conservative president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who has emphasized his pro-business economic policies, will roll back environmental regulations.

“Environmental policy is likely to recede under the new administration,” says Heo Seung-eun of Green Korea, an environmental activism group.

“Companies need to think more about recycling right from the production stage, but the changes are coming slowly, compared to the increased environmental awareness of consumers.”

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