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Disposable cup deposit scheme to be scrapped in 3 years

Posted September. 12, 2023 08:32,   

Updated September. 12, 2023 08:32


The Ministry of Environment decided to leave the disposable cup deposit scheme, which it was planning to expand nationwide, at the discretion of local governments. The decision was made based on the conclusion that the recycling rate for disposable cups was not very high, compared to the inconvenience by consumers and stores. The regulation, which had been under pilot operation in Sejong and Jeju after the decision for introduction in 2020 but postponed for two terms, will be scrapped. This means the budget of 24 billion spent on pilot operations for the last three years has gone to waste.

Under the regulation, customers were required to deposit 300 won when purchasing beverage in a paper or plastic cup, which is refunded when the cup is returned. It was introduced to reduce the use of disposable products in 2018 when China refused imports of recyclable waste, which escalated into a major issue.

Despite its designed purpose and intention, environmental policies are difficult to establish because they entail regulations and inconvenience for companies and consumers. From a customer’s viewpoint, customers must return to stores and look for a disposable cup collecting machine to get 300 won back. The burden is greater for stores, which collect, rinse, and store the cups before returning them to a recycling company. Applying the regulation to franchises with more than 100 stores also raised controversy on fairness.

Thus, it is imperative to have careful preparations to convince the public of the need of the regulation, ease burdens, and build infrastructure to make it easy to return and collect cups. We could have learned from previous lessons when the same policy was introduced in 2003 and scrapped five years later. The Ministry of Environment, however, sat idle doing nothing for two years. When the promised date of execution neared, it chose to postpone execution because of COVID-19 and opposition from business. Eventually, it narrowed the scope and then hastily left it to the responsibility of local governments.

In Sejong and Jeju, where the policy had been in effect for the last nine months, the cup return rate was only 45% and 64%, respectively. Low public acceptance, as well as the ministry’s inconsistent policy implementation, have caused the public to disregard the policy. The ministry’s bureaucracy failure to learn from mistakes has left those who respected the policy as fools, and vendors that manufactured and distributed the unmanned recycling collection machines have been severely impacted as well. Three years ago, the Ministry tried to ban discount sales of bundled products to reduce packaging waste. Enforcing policies with possible side effects is an issue, but repeatedly introducing and withdrawing policies without properly considering their impact is more serious in that it undermines the credibility towards public policy. How can we expect the government, with such low administrative power, to capably promote and enforce complex environmental policies?