South Korea latest country to ban single-use plastic bags
The law came into force on Tuesday (1 January), with the South Korean Ministry of Environment announcing that 2,000 discount chain outlets and 11,000 supermarkets could be fined up to three million won (£2,121.50) if they ignore the ban.
South Korea is one of the world’s leading recycling nations – in 2017, according to its own reports, the country was in fourth place for municipal solid waste recycling, reporting a 59 per cent recycling rate behind Germany, Wales and Singapore. In fact, adjusted figures compiled by Eunomia Research and Consulting – to take account for differences in recycling measures across the globe – placed South Korea in third place, with a rate of 54 per cent, overtaking Wales.
However, the recycling world was thrown into disarray following the dramatic announcement by China at the start of last year that it would be banning the import of 24 grades of solid waste, including post-consumer plastics. Following that, a number of other waste export destinations began tightening their rules on imports. As a result, many countries have been forced to address how they deal with their waste and recycling at home, rather than looking abroad – including South Korea, which previously exported the majority of its recyclables to China.
Plastic waste in particular has come under attack, with lightweight single-use plastic bags representing a large and hard-to-process waste stream, most often ending up in residual waste bins and therefore landfill or incineration, or finding their way into the natural environment, where their impact on wildlife has been well-documented.
The move by South Korea to ban the offending items follows in the footsteps of more than 50 countries worldwide, with Bangladesh the first to enact a ban in 2002. New Zealand is also planning to ban single-use bags from 1 July this year, with a six-month ‘phase out’ period prior to its enforcement to allow importers and retailers to run down their stocks.
Last year’s World Environment Day, meanwhile, which focused on the theme of ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’, saw India pledge to cut out all single-use plastics by 2022, though it remains to be seen whether this promise will be backed up with action.
Under the new ban in South Korea, lightweight plastic bags will still be available for meat and fish, and in bakeries (where a charge will be applied to the bags), but in other circumstances plastic bags will need to be replaced with paper or cloth bags or recyclable containers. This is in contrast to the UK, where thin single-use bags have in general been replaced by thicker, reusable plastic bags at a cost of five pence each.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently launched a consultation into increasing the plastic bag charge in England to 10 pence, as well as possibly extending it to retailers of all sizes – currently the fee only applies to businesses with more than 250 employees.
Gove said: “The five pence single use plastic carrier bag charge has been extremely successful in reducing the amount of plastic we use in our everyday lives. Between us, we have taken over 15 billion plastic bags out of circulation.
“But we want to do even more to protect our precious planet and today’s announcement will accelerate further behaviour change and build on the success of the existing charge.”