This summer, cafés all over South Korea have added a line to their employee dialogue: “for here or to go?” In May, the South Korean government began enforcing a plastic cup ban that cracks down on all cafes–including larger franchises like Starbucks and smaller private shops–who provide plastic cups for customers that are not purchasing their drinks “to go.” With the law in place, cafes that are caught with a violation could be charged up to a 2 million won fine.
The plastic cup ban is a response to China’s decision this January to halt their import of plastic waste. Without a place to throw all the plastic and with a growing abundance of waste, the Korean government decided that plastic cups should be only used for take-out drinks. According to the Korea Women’s Environmental Network (KWEN), the number of disposable plastic cups sold jumped from 432 million in 2009 to 672 million in 2015.
The war against plastic is not specific to Korea. Cities in the US like Seattle have begun enforcing similar plastic cup bans as well, and major franchises such as Starbucks are beginning to phase out plastic straws.
Koreans in general were on board with the idea of a plastic cup ban; last December, a survey released by the Ministry of Environment noted that 78.6 percent of the respondents thought that the growing use of plastic cups was a “serious problem,” and 89.9 percent of them said they would support a “disposable cup deposit scheme”.
Yet the public reaction to the law is not entirely positive. Some customers find it extremely inconvenient when the employees mix up their orders and give them reusable mugs when they asked for a take-out drink.
Another issue is brought up when customers claim that they will stay in the café for just a moment, ask for a plastic cup, but stay for longer than they are supposed to. Cafes have to pay a fine if a customer with a disposable cup stays in the café for longer than five minutes. According to the Kukmin Ilbo, an anonymous café owner wrote online that a customer that asked for a disposable cup sat in the café for longer than he claimed he would; the café owner says that the new cup ban is a struggle for him/her when customers lie or argue for a plastic cup.
The South Korean government is taking a step forward in the plastic war, perhaps setting an important ground for its future environmental policies. With the growing plastic problem in not only South Korea but the world, the government’s response is a solution in the right direction, though customers may not be happy with it.