| South Korea

Disposable cup use in South Korea mounts during the pandemic

The number of disposable cups sold across 14 café chains and four fast-food restaurants in South Korea has increased by 30% since the start of the pandemic, as the country’s hospitality businesses prepare for a new deposit scheme in December 2022

Of the single-use cups consumed in 2021, only 27.5% were returned to the stores for recycling | Photo credit: Artem Labunsky

The number of disposable cups used in South Korea surpassed one billion for the first time in 2021, according to a new report from the government’s Environment Ministry.

The research found that 4.34 billion single-use plastic and paper cups were used at 14 café and four fast-food chains over the past five years, peaking at 1.02 billion last year.

The average yearly consumption of disposable cups at the same outlets was 784.8 million pre-pandemic.

Of the single-use cups consumed during the period, only 27.5%, or 238.57 million cups, were returned to the stores for recycling. The Environment Ministry has stressed the need for more ‘concrete’ measures to improve public awareness about reducing disposable cup use.

As such, the government body will launch a new deposit system in December 2022 that will see franchise brands with more than 100 stores impose an additional 300 won ($0.22) surcharge per cup.

The deposit money will be reimbursed to the consumer when the cup is returned to the store. The Environment Ministry hopes the disposable cup return rate will reach 90%.

The scheme was controversially postponed in June 2022.

A ban on the use of disposable items, including single-use cutlery, toothpicks and plastic tablecloths, has been in place since April 2022, although fines for violations have broadly been suspended as small businesses continue to recover from the pandemic.

“Abrupt change in the way people use disposable products will not yield practical results. We are gradually implementing fining system and deposit system to let such custom permeate into our lives, so that neither customers and store owners do not object to this,” said Park Yong-beom, an official from Environment Ministry.

The use of disposable coffee cups in East Asia soared during the pandemic. In July 2022 environmental group Greenpeace revealed that Hong Kong residents discard approximately 400 million disposable coffee cups per year, with the same charity reporting in August 2022 that nine of Japan’s major coffee chains served approximately 370 million disposable cups in 2020 alone.

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