Overuse of paper cups presents hurdle for green growth
You can see them everywhere around the world, but they seem to be most prevalent in Korea.
From coffee vending machines out in the street, coffee shops and restaurants to offices, they are ubiquitous. And they are seemingly used with abandon.
A week-long survey conducted in The Korea Times office in Seoul is a good illustration of how badly we are addicted to paper cups.
On an average day, there are about 20 reporters in the news room. They were found to throw away a total of 242 paper cups in the span of six days, roughly 40 cups per day. The figure boils down to at least two paper cups per person per day.
These numbers raise eyebrows as they seem to run counter to the government’s new and aggressive advocacy for fighting climate change and pursuing green growth.
In 2008, the government voluntarily pledged that it would come up with a national emission reduction target. At the end of last year, Cheong Wa Dae announced Korea’s reduction target will be four percent by 2020 from the 2005 levels.
It also put out the slogan of “green growth,” introducing “The Basic Act on Low Carbon Emissions.”
Also, the government established a Greenhouse Gas Inventory and a research center for monitoring gas emissions and the development of green growth related facilities.
How many do we use?
Finding an answer to that question remains elusive, for there are so many independent producers and seemingly nobody keeps track of the number.
According to the Paper Cup Producers Association (tentative title) consisting of 50 local producers, nearly 11.6 billion paper cups are produced every year.
This number is only a part of the whole number because there are 70 other producers that operate independently, making obtaining accurate data even more difficult.
A few of them export their products to Japan in unknown quantities, according to the association.
Paper cups are a 20th century invention. They were first introduced in 1907 in the United States for sanitary reasons. In the aftermath of the tragic deaths of school children after sharing mugs, paper cups became widely available at affordable price.
The first paper cups were called “health kups.”
How harmful are they to the environment?
According to data from the Ministry of Environment, one paper cup discharged from a coffee vending machine -- weighing four grams -- produces 11 grams of greenhouse gas in production. The seemingly trivial number grows significantly when multiplied by 11.6 billion, reaching 127.6 billion grams or 127,600 tons of greenhouse gas per year.
The ministry also said it takes 20 20-year-old trees to produce one ton of paper cups.
According to the AMP Blogs network, an online environmental advocacy group, in 2006, over 6.5 million trees were cut down in the United States to make 16 million paper cups, using four billion gallons of water and resulted in 253 million pounds of waste.
No binding regulation in place
The biggest consumers of paper cups in Korea are the coffee shops. The district of Jung-gu in Seoul has roughly 4,000 coffee shops, yet the exact number of coffee shops in the country is hard to figure out, said Choo Gyeong-jin, director general of the resource recirculation policy division at the resources recirculation bureau.
Regulating businesses that use paper cups is even harder to work out because of the absence of binding regulations.
“An act on the promotion of saving and recycling resources” is standing as the backbone legislation, but makes no mention of a binding regulation on how many cups are allowed to be used in take-out coffee shops like Starbucks and Coffee Bean.
“We used to have strict regulations, but not anymore,” Choo said.
What the ministry now has is an optional agreement, allowing the companies to voluntarily join public efforts.
Big name participants including Starbucks Korea and Coffee Bean Korea are instructed to encourage customers to drink coffee out of mugs provided by the coffee shop.
The voluntary system also encourages the businesses to recycle the cups. An agent comes and collects all the paper cups dumped in trash cans during the day.
According to an official from the Chung-gu district office, monitoring without any real powers has almost no effect.
“All you can do is encourage stores, not force them by imposing fines,” said the official who didn’t disclose his name for the article.
‘Consumers prefer paper cups to mugs’
One convincing argument from the coffee business sector is this: “We ask customers whether they’d like to have their coffee in mugs, but they seem to prefer paper cups even when they have their drinks in the coffee shop,” according to a manager of a coffee shop near Chungmuro, Seoul, raising a public awareness challenge in reducing the consumption of paper cups.
“Therefore, there is very little business interest,” the district official said.