Daily average waste volume in Korea has surpassed half million tons. According to Korean Environment Corporation, daily average waste volume in 2020, when COVID-19 outbreak started, recorded 540,872 tons, which is 8.8% higher than the previous year. The volume and growth rate are at record high levels. Annually the volume is 197.4 million tons, but considering the growth trend, last year’s volume is estimated to have exceeded 200 million tons.
The growth is particularly noticeable for plastic waste. Korea’s use of plastic waste per person is 88 kilograms, which ranks third in the world after the U.S. (130 kg) and the U.K. (99kg). Koreans’ consumption of plastic has risen rapidly over the pandemic, with increased use of food and package delivery. Plastic waste that has been separated and removed for recycling in 2020 reached 3,065 tons, 17.7% higher than the previous year. According to Green Peace data last year, the average Korean household produces 92 pieces of plastic waste per week. The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a ‘waste pandemic’ as well.
The problem is that there is a severe lack of landfill or incineration facilities to deal with these plastic wastes, which is the key cause for marine pollution. One third of landfill in Korea is meeting full capacity levels, but the government is not moving quickly enough to find new ones. It is challenging as well to build new incineration facilities due to concerns of hazardous wastes produced from burning waste.
Eventually, the best way to prevent plastic disaster is to use less of it and reuse. The government has decided to ban use of disposables at cafes from April, and the use of plastic bags at retail stores including convenience stores from November, with the aim of reducing plastic waste volume by 20% by 2025. These measures, though, are far behind plastic bag regulations in advanced countries. We need to build ambitious long-term road maps to reduce the use of plastic and encourage more people to get involved. Another issue is that only 56% of plastic is being recycled. We need to boost recycling of plastic at households and put policies in place to use recycled materials in the plastic production stage. The government should also provide active support for technology and commercialization of recycled plastic.