The South Korean government on Tuesday announced the withdrawal of a ban on disposable paper cups for food service businesses such as cafes and restaurants, along with provisional approval for the use of plastic straws at cafes and plastic bags at convenience stores.
The Environment Ministry's announcement came as the grace period for the policy was coming to an end.
A ban on single-use products, including paper cups, plastic straws and stirring sticks, was part of disposable product regulations that took effect on Nov. 24 last year, with a one-year grace period. A fine of up to 3 million won ($2,290) would have been imposed for violations after the end of the grace period.
As for plastic straws and stirring sticks, the grace period will be extended indefinitely, until further announcement.
Furthermore, the ministry emphasized its commitment to nurturing a cultural shift toward the voluntary adoption of alternatives to plastic bags, including biodegradable bags, reusable shopping bags and standard plastic garbage bags, instead of the imposition of fines.
The Environment Ministry clarified that its decision was rooted in consideration of hardships faced by small business owners, particularly as they grapple with the challenges of elevated prices and high interest rates.
Speaking at a news conference, Vice Environment Minister Lim Sang-jun explained that “banning paper cups had imposed the burden of hiring additional personnel to wash reusable cups or installing washing machines,” adding that South Korea is the only country that regulates the use of paper cups.
"It is not the government's duty to impose another burden on small business owners and self-employed people when they are already suffering from difficult economic conditions," Lim told reporters during the briefing.
The Environment Ministry also pointed out that paper straws, an alternative to plastic straws, are 2 1/2 times more expensive but have lower consumer satisfaction.
“The use of plastic straws and stirring bars will be banned when the quality of replacement products is improved and the prices stabilize,” said Lee, without clarifying a specific time frame.
Although the ministry claims it has considered various situations, including the economic burden on consumers, criticism of the massive retreat on eco-friendly policies seems inevitable.
As an example, the ministry recommended a more rigorous separation of paper cups for improved recycling efficiency as a means to mitigate repercussions of the policy reversal. Nevertheless, the ministry did not provide specific strategies to incentivize the separation of waste.
Some commenters have speculated the move was intended to attract more votes in the general elections in April next year.