Shifts in Shopping Sprees: Bans on Single-Use Plastic Bags in South Korea and the U.S.

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Effective on January 1, 2019, South Korea had banned all single-use plastic bags from major supermarkets following a growing number of environmentally conscious countries. [1] Joining this assembly of progressive pioneers, various states in the U.S. established the same measure beginning in August of 2014. [2] This environmental policy in the U.S. and South Korea demonstrates an interesting congruence of approaches to an omnipresent problem. Diminishing the prevalence of plastic bag use would not only “mitigate harmful impacts to oceans, rivers, lakes, forests and the wildlife,” but is also linked to “solving” climate change. [3] Behavior analyst Lyle K. Grant suggests that “addressing climate change requires an integration of regulatory, energy efficiency, skill-based, and dissemination solutions,” with the ban falling under the regulatory category. [4] Through comparisons of how two culturally and socially independent countries engage with the ban of single-use plastic bags, a broader scope of collaborative solutions for addressing global environmental issues can be observed. 

South Korea’s Single-Use Plastic Bag Ban

Following a reversal in the policy during the pandemic in 2020, the South Korean government is attempting to make up for lost time by re-implementing the ban while also implementing new bans on single-use plastic cups and straws. [5] Some South Koreans were unhappy and confused after the 2019 regulation which is understandable due to the convenience of single-use bags. [6] However, this change in government policy aligns with an overarching trend of growing environmentalism in the public conscience. According to a survey from the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2022, 65% of young consumers showed increased interest in environmental protection and ethical consumption. [7] Additionally, a supermajority of 92.4 percent of Koreans perceive climate change as a serious problem, while 48.8 percent view government action as the most fundamental factor to addressing it. [8] Considering regulation on consumption is an essential aspect of combating climate change, this perspective ties directly into a positive view of the plastic bag ban. [9] The international sphere views the South Korean government as successfully having “nationalized” environmental policy, thereby creating a narrative of environmental action as an opportunity for the country as a whole. [10] Furthermore, with the general public moving towards environmentally progressive beliefs as the problem grows in severity, the response of South Korea shows a relatively hopeful case for nationwide single-use plastic bans. 

The U.S.’ Single-Use Plastic Bag Ban

In contrast, the political system of the United States devolves the legislative authority for these kinds of environmentalist bans to state governments rather than the federal government. Eight states in the United States — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont — have amended their laws from 2014 to 2022 to combat the problem of plastic pollution. [11] Although the Pew Research Center found that 63 percent of Americans believe global climate change is affecting them personally (considerably lower than South Korea’s 92.4 percent), 65 percent of Americans also believe that the government is doing too little to combat the issue. [12] When considering the limitations of the federal government to enact certain laws, with 18 states prohibiting local government action on restricting “auxiliary containers,” or single-use or reusable packaging, the views of the majority of Americans are largely unaddressed. [13] In other words, there is a disparity between shifting public environmental opinion and compliant government response. For example, in Oklahoma, a law “prohibit[s] local governments from restricting, taxing, banning, or regulating the use, disposition, or sale of auxiliary containers,” highlighting a political constraint on the municipalities’ abilities to pass environmental policy. [14] Even if Americans’ viewpoints are moving in the same direction as those of South Koreans, the structure of government regulation is limiting the expansion of the single-use plastic ban.

Arising Problems and Solutions

Examining the complexity of issues that arise out of an environmental policy is not only more beneficial with multiple countries for empirical evidence, but critical. According to Professor Shelie Miller at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, regardless of the intentions of the policymakers, “we solve one environmental problem only to create or exacerbate another problem.” [15] There are variances in effectiveness of the ban itself; this is apparent in the instances of reusable bag accumulation from online delivery services in states like New Jersey. [16] Everyday citizens who utilized these services would unintentionally adopt a lifestyle of hoarding dozens of “reusable” bags, as a new one would have to be provided for every delivery. In response, New Jersey Senator Bob Smith announced a possible amendment to the policy, allowing paper bags for grocery stores that conduct online orders. [17] This state legislation also requires the paper bags to contain at least 40% recycled content, and implements a mandate on programs for consumers to return reusable bags. [18]

The South Korean government took a drastically different approach to combating the problem with deliveries and plastic. According to the Korea Consumer Agency, the average food delivery service user produces 24 pounds of plastic waste annually. [19] Because the country’s use of plastic for deliveries is similarly high to the U.S., the Seoul Metropolitan Government developed a pilot project in 2022 with a delivery app that utilizes only reusable containers in accordance with their goal of being a zero-waste society. [20] While both countries face similar growing environmentally progressive attitudes and issues concerning the efficiency of the ban on single use plastic bags, their varied responses reveal a greater expanse of potential solutions.

Although unexpected developments from the policy must be considered, the implementation of a global ban on single-use plastic bags is beneficial for finding a wider variety of approaches to a solution, and the potential for international collaboration. The shifting public perspective on environmental policy is transforming our priorities from convenience to demonstrating a more serious concern for ethical production and consumption. South Korea and the U.S. discovered similar changes in consumer limitations, such as with online delivery services, but the solutions from businesses and policymakers worked to counter the setbacks. As more nations step forward in highlighting the restriction as a resistor to climate change, further global attention, research, innovation, and advocacy can only strengthen the potential for effective sustainable action.


References

[1] Samuel Osborne, “South Korea Bans Single-Use Plastic Bags,” The Independent, January 1, 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/plastic-pollution-south-korea-shopping-bag-ban-a8707101.html&sa=D&source=docs&ust=1666625791644633&usg=AOvVaw0_POhPH7OmHZx4qpWUt-Nr, 1.

[2] Jennifer Schultz, “State Plastic Bag Legislation,” National Conference of State Legislatures, February 8, 2021, https://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/plastic-bag-legislation.aspx.

[3] Jennifer Schultz, “State Plastic Bag Legislation.”

[4] Lyle K. Grant, “Can We Consume Our Way Out of Climate Change? A Call for Analysis,” The Behavior Analyst 34, no. 2 (2011): pp. 245-266, https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03392256.

[5] Eun-byel Im, “Ban on Single-Use Plastics Returns,” The Korea Herald, March 31, 2022, https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220331000733.

[6] Eun-byel Im, “Ban on Single-Use Plastics Returns.”

[7] Leslie Hickman, “The Road to a Plastic-Free Society: Korea’s Fight against Plastic Waste,” Asia Society, April 27, 2022, https://asiasociety.org/korea/road-plastic-free-society-koreas-fight-against-plastic-waste.

[8] Hyeonjung Choi, South Korean Perception on Climate Change (February 18, 2020). Issue Brief 2020-03, The Asan Institute for Policy Studies (February 2020), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3690324.

[9] Lyle K. Grant, “Can We Consume Our Way Out of Climate Change? A Call for Analysis,” 245-266.

[10] Theo Mendez, “South Korea: Green Growth or Greenwashing?,” Pursuit (The University of Melbourne, September 8, 2022), https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/south-korea-green-growth-or-greenwashing.

[11] Jennifer Schultz, “State Plastic Bag Legislation.”

[12] Reem Nadeem, “Two-Thirds of Americans Think Government Should Do More on Climate,” Pew Research Center, July 12, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2020/06/23/two-thirds-of-americans-think-government-should-do-more-on-climate/.

[13] Jennifer Schultz, “State Plastic Bag Legislation.”

[14] “Plastic Bag Preemption Conflicts between State and Local Governments,” Ballotpedia, March 14, 2022, https://ballotpedia.org/Plastic_bag_preemption_conflicts_between_state_and_local_governments.

[15] Clare Toeniskoetter, “Why Do Some People in New Jersey Suddenly Have Bags and Bags of Bags?,” The New York Times, September 1, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/01/climate/paper-plastic-bag-ban-new-jersey.html.

[16] Clare Toeniskoetter, “Why Do Some People in New Jersey Suddenly Have Bags and Bags of Bags?”

[17] Katie Katro, “Pending Amendments Could Be Coming to New Jersey’s Plastic Bag Ban,” 6abc Philadelphia, November 30, 2022, https://6abc.com/trenton-nj-bag-ban-new-jersey-changes-paper-bags/12507667/#:~:text=Senator%20Bob%20Smith%20sponsored%20the,or%20bringing%20back%20paper%20bags.

[18] Dino Flammia, “’Astounding’ Results from NJ’s Plastic Bag Ban, 6 Months In,” New Jersey 101.5, November 19, 2022, https://nj1015.com/astounding-results-from-njs-plastic-bag-ban-6-months-in/.

[19] Sae-jin Park, “Seoul to Popularize Reusable Containers through Partnership with Major Food Delivery Operators,” AJU Business Daily, April 22, 2022, https://www.ajudaily.com/view/20220422095223461.

[20] Ji-eun Seo, “Seoul Promotes Zero Waste, and Many Are Eager to Help,” Korea Joongang Daily, June 9, 2022, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2022/06/09/national/socialAffairs/Korea-Seoul-zero-waste/20220609193333380.html.

Author

  • Hailey is a student at Yale University (class of 2026) studying Global Affairs. She currently serves as the 2023-2024 YRIS Outreach Director.